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Is district heating finally taking off in the UK?

After failed attempts in the 60s and 70s, recent government moves and major projects suggest district heating has turned a corner.

Anyone driving through the Blackwall Tunnel in London recently will have been greeted by the slender, shimmering silhouette of The Optic Cloak.

Designed by Conrad Shawcross, the aluminium cladding hides the 50 m-high chimneys of an energy centre at the heart of Europe’s largest residential new-build district heating scheme.

Greenwich peninsula energy centre kier knight dragon

Greenwich peninsula energy centre kier knight dragon

The centre, which houses a gas-fired combined heat and power plant, biomass and gas-fired boilers as well as thermal storage systems, will plug into a district heating network of some 16 km of piping throughout the south London mega-development on Greenwich Peninsula. The network, designed by Ramboll Energy, will provide low-carbon heat to more than 15,000 homes and 3.5m sq ft of commercial space.

Continental model

District heating is currently a rarity in the UK. Failed attempts to install networks in the 60s and 70s may be to blame but we only need to look to Europe to see how it can be operated effectively: in Copenhagen, 95 per cent of homes are connected to district heating systems.

Improvements to the design of district heating systems and their components mean they can provide cost-effective, efficient heat, allowing for significant reductions to be made in fuel poverty. The cost of delivering heat to a home can be as low as 6p per kWh, compared with the equivalent figure of 10p per kWh for traditional gas heating.

District heating also has the potential to help the UK meet its international commitments to the reduction of CO2 emissions. District heating networks are able to take heat from a number of sustainable sources. Using heat pumps, for example, it’s possible to convert the wasted heat from industrial sites or use geothermal heat. In Gothenburg, Sweden, a district heat network draws heat from the city’s waste water treatment plants.

“District heating provides a viable, efficient and sustainable alternative to centralised power plants”

The energy centre in Greenwich has been designed to connect to future heat production sources and might one day draw sustainable heat from the Thames or the London Underground.

Carbon emissions from heat generated via a district heat system can be as little as 60 kg CO2/kWh, compared with 240 kg CO2/kWh for heating using individual gas boilers.

Goverment recognition

As the UK deliberates the prospect of winter energy shortages and considers how to secure its future energy supply, district heating provides a viable, efficient and sustainable alternative to centralised power plants.

It seems the government recognises this, too. In last year’s Autumn Statement, the chancellor pledged more than £300m of capital funding for the development of district heat networks. The funding allocated has now been confirmed at £320m, which the government estimates will generate an additional £2bn of investment from the private sector.

In June, the government launched a consultation inviting responses from stakeholders on the deployment of this funding, the results of which have yet to be published but are expected imminently.

The first tranche of this funding is already being put to work. In October, the newly formed Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched a £39m pilot project, open to project bids from public sector bodies.

It seems only a matter of time before district heating takes off.

Crispin Matson is country manager at Ramboll Energy UK

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