Guide to district heating

District heating schemes

It is crucial that action is taken now to decarbonise heating and hot water usage for the UK to meet its commitments made under the Climate Change Act and district heating schemes are widely considered to be a core part of the solution.

Heat generation accounts for 50% of UK energy usage and district heating networks can radically improve efficiency in this area whilst cutting back considerably on the use of fossil fuels. For these reasons district heat networks have become a key UK Government response to fulfilling energy security needs and environmental obligations.

What is district heating?

District heating is the network or distribution of thermal energy in either the form of steam, hot water or chilled liquids from a central source of production. This will feed into multiple buildings or sites for the use of heating, hot water and in some cases, cooling.

The Heat Network Regulations minimum criteria for a district heat network is two buildings being supplied with heat and at least one final customer.

The difference between district and community heating

True district heating is the distribution of heat from large scale generation and waste heat sources around large areas, usually within cities, connecting community heating schemes together.

Community heating on the other hand is a centralised heating system that supplies heat and hot water to one building block with more than one heat customer.

Typical district heating energy sources

Since district heat networks can provide heat to large cities and towns or small sites containing only a few buildings the source of the heating can be equally diverse.

The energy production for a district heating network can be supplied by a range of systems from power stations to gas-fired CHP units. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Combined heat and power (CHP) technology, sometimes referred to as cogeneration, is considered one of the more efficient energy sources for district heating schemes.

Typical central energy sources;

  • Power stations
  • EfW (energy from waste)
  • Gas fired combined heat and power units
  • Biomass combined heat and power
  • Industrial heat pumps
  • Solar/geothermal sources

What are the benefits of district heat networks?

The primary benefits of district heating are threefold. Lower energy costs, environmental (through the reduction in carbon emissions) and security of supply. For these reasons the UK Government have made district heat networks central to their energy plans.

“Heat networks form an important part of our plan to reduce carbon and cut heating bills for customers (domestic and commercial). They are one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions from heating, and their efficiency and carbon-saving potential increases as they grow and connect to each other.

They provide a unique opportunity to exploit larger scale – and often lower cost – renewable and recovered heat sources that otherwise cannot be used. It is estimated by the CCC that around 18% of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if the UK is to meet its carbon targets cost effectively.”

UK Government Guidelines

District heating in the UK

As with community heating, district heating must comply with all the regulations set out for heating networks by the Government.

In terms of funding and backing, the Government pledged £220 million to local authorities to help them reduce air pollution in their constituencies making the installation of district heating in towns and cities a viable energy solution.
In the UK today, there are over 1,800 district heating schemes heating around 210,000 homes and 1,700 businesses across the country.

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