In the heat of the community

What is district heating – and can this hot new trend really provide an answer to fuel poverty?

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Hygge, the Danish art of cosiness, is in vogue this year. Numerous books and lifestyle pages sing the Scandinavian praises of wooly socks and scented candles.

Yet achieving inner warmth often assumes a reliable source of outer heat - something that, for over 60 per cent of Danes, is not provided via individual oil or gas boilers, but through locally-run, district heating schemes.

In this highly collective system, otherwise known as a heat network, boilers are replaced with water warmed at a nearby energy centre and piped directly into people’s homes. The connection to a decentralised energy source increases efficiency and broadens the scope for low-carbon generation, such as the capture and reuse of waste heat - from factories, power plants, or transport infrastructure.

At the redevelopment of the iconic Battersea Power Station in London, the new luxury flats, organic bakery, and Apple’s new London Campus are all to be warmed by their own 6,574m2  energy centre.

The combined heat and power (CHP) plant will generate up to 7MW of electricity, then redirect the excess heat into heating, hot water and cooling for the wider site. A feasibility study has also been run to see if water pumped from the Thames could provide the centre with even cleaner energy.

Similarly ambitious schemes can be found across the capital and the country. At Elephant and Castle, energy giant E.ON has been contracted to provide a biogas-linked energy hub. In Bristol, the mayor has approved £5m of funding for a low-carbon heat network that will eventually phase out natural gas in favour of renewable alternatives.

The expansion coincides with a government push to cut the UK’s energy use and meet its climate change targets. In 2015, the Spending Review announced over £300m to support investment in heat networks and help “build an energy infrastructure fit for the 21st century”.

But not everyone has entirely welcomed the move. Battersea Power Station once sent its own waste heat under the river to Pimlico, where it was used to warm a local housing estate. The upgraded system that still serves the community today is one of 2,000 heat networks already in operation around the UK – and each scheme has varying levels of consumer satisfaction.

According to a Which? survey of 50 such schemes, the centralised infrastructure removes the need for individual boiler maintenance, and offers the potential to reduce emissions. But the extensive capital required to set up the projects also means that customers are often locked in to long-term contracts – heightening the need for fair charges, transparency around the derivation of bills, and the smooth running of service.

Ruth London, a campaigner at Fuel Poverty Action, has seen the lack of regulation surrounding the industry affect some of the most vulnerable in society: “A couple of years ago, people started coming to us about the way they’d been locked into contracts with monopoly district heating suppliers and were facing staggering bills and often unreliable service, apparently with no recourse.”

One such instance can be found at Myatts Field North, not far from Battersea, where a recent redevelopment of the 1970s estate saw responsibility for renewing the site’s energy centre pass to energy giant E.ON. Since then, residents have reported outages, inadequate hot water and high bills.

For Philip Tromans, a private tenure resident, the lack of transparency over bills and water temperatures has led to scepticism about district heating’s wider claims to increased efficiency. “If it really is more efficient and cheaper, then you would expect to see that reflected in your bills,” he says, pointing out that his own bills are higher than the figure the Heat Trust’s Heat Cost Calculator quoted him for heating his home with a gas boiler.

 A spokesperson from E.ON told me that the company has “hopefully turned a corner ” with regard to the early engineering issues at the estate, but that it still needs “to get a bit better at improving things and sharing more with the residents.” If it doesn’t, then schemes like that at Myatts Field risk darkening the name of heat networks in general.

According to Dr Charlotte Johnson at UCL’s Energy Institute, district heating providers would benefit from taking a more transparent and inclusive approach. Tariffs pegged to the price of gas, for instance, do not help reflect the vastly different infrastructure that heat networks entail.

Michael King, Convener of the District Energy Vanguards Network, has a similar perspective. In the current system, he explains, the profit obligation of private-sector energy companies can be at odds with the interests of customers.

But there are alternatives. In Aberdeen, King helped the City Council establish a not-for-profit independent company that provides “affordable warmth” via district heating.

Its prices are set not against the price of gas, but against the needs of its users – specifically, never higher than 10 per cent of the income of a single pensioner household on benefits – and the results have turned around the fortunes of some of the city’s dampest tower blocks. Instead of wanting to move out, people now want to move in, King says.

This is much closer to the ethos that operates in Denmark. For Brian Vad Mathiesen, professor of energy planning at Aalborg University, the “extremely popular” system is a result of the fact that, by law, the heating supply companies are not permitted to make a profit beyond their own sustainability. Companies are also required to submit their tariffs to a central body for annual publication, allowing consumers to compare like with like.

Back in the UK, the government’s pilot of its Heat Networks Investment Project makes no such specification. But it is set to assess local authority applications for capital funding on a set of multiple criteria.

As Mathiesen is keen to stress, district heating is only a success in Denmark “because it is generally cheaper than the alternative and because the system is trustworthy.” Perhaps this, not hygge, is the key to keeping cosy this Christmas.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.