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Low Carbon Heat Networks

Patrick Elwell

By Patrick Elwell, Sustainability Analyst at CBx

Have you ever bought something expensive and then hidden it away to never be used again? Perhaps you have if you’re a classic car enthusiast, but for the majority of us the idea would seem absurd. Well, this is happening with low carbon heat networks. The installation of capital-intensive technologies is common amongst stakeholders to generate energy savings and reduce carbon emissions. However, all too often these networks fail to live up to the performance they were designed to achieve. Countless biomass and CHP installations are installed and then mothballed due to a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology purchased. For those that applied for RHI support between 2011 and 2016, 5% of applications were either rejected, failed or cancelled. That’s over 3,000 applications and not counting those that didn’t apply in the first place.

The issue does not lie with the technology per se. On paper, low carbon technology shows fantastic gains in “source efficiency” through onsite generation which generally results in a positive return on investment made through energy savings. But that’s on paper. In reality, low carbon technology can face a plethora of issues if not managed from the get-go. Issues ranging from design, installation, commissioning and operation can create ripples across the industry which leave end-users struggling to understand their new kit and gives the technology a bad reputation.

Work has been done to help stakeholders understand their systems better; a lot of this information is written about getting new systems working. However, this work generally remains in the author’s respected industry and rarely does the knowledge transfer easily across other sectors. The consequences of this can lead to confused communication and an inward-looking culture where short term goals become the norm. CBx is focussed on bridging this gap with its Low Carbon Heat Network project. The project will not look at recreating information that already exists but instead look at existing networks and identify barriers that limit their operating performance. This is an area that DECC has recognised and views it as a means to contributing towards its heat targets, which is to have 12% of total heat demand to come from renewables in 2020.

Heat networks have long been recognised by the UK government as an opportunity to meet its carbon targets. Currently, only 2% of the heat supplied in the UK comes from heat networks. As one of the lowest participants in Europe for district heating, there is certainly room for improvement. However, there appears to be an information gap between invested parties that all too often leads to confusion about how optimise a heat network’s operation. As a result, many networks across the UK are being mothballed, which is a huge blow to the UK Government’s carbon targets. The proposed CBx project will create an evidence-based user guide which is transparent and accessible. The overall aim is to help bring back online more heat networks and so mitigate the effects of traditional carbon-based energy, thus lessening the UK’s contribution to climate change.

With support from Skanska, Wilmot Dixon, BuroHapphold and Catalyst Housing, the CBx Low Carbon Heat Network project is aimed at stakeholders that are real users of heat networks and want to overcome some of the barriers they may have faced during their network’s life time. Themes such as education, finance, operation and risk management are salient among nonperforming networks. By comparing these themes with real examples, CBx will be able to start dismantling the walls that divide the industry and create a more collaborative environment.

If you would to discuss the project in more detail, or if you might like to contribute your network as an example, please contact Patrick on info@cbxchange.com, who will be very happy to speak with you.