How it works; simple district heating
District heating a possibility in the UK?
Doing nothing to dispel the myth that doing a PhD is just a jolly at others’ expense, I’ve just returned from an all-expenses-paid meeting with a research institute in Helsinki. Now at first glance it wouldn’t appear that the Brits are going to be able to tell the Finnish about the
addition of green technologies for the purpose of saving energy within buildings. Universal triple glazing, walls a foot thick with god knows how much insulation and biomass district heating plants abound. However
apparently they aren’t too hot on building regulations, which was where
we from the other side of the Baltic seemed to fit in.
Anyway, skipping over the turgid details of Finnish Building regs, and returning to the title of this particular blog, I wish to talk about what I was most impressed with from my brief time out there – the district heating systems. And provided that you haven’t skipped to the next blog about someone’s family life or supporting Arsenal by now – and you shouldn’t have, you know what you’re going to get with this blog - I shall do my best to enlighten you on the ins and outs of district heating, and in particular the rather pathetic efforts of the UK in adopting this low carbon alternative.
About half of Finland’s energy comes from district heating systems (less than 1% of the UK’s does), mainly as district heating with combined heat and power (CHPDH) and often fuelled at least in part with biomass (there’s no shortage of pine trees in Finland, over 85% of the country is under forests). In fact it doesn’t end there; much of the fuel comes from solid waste which is incinerated, and a smaller percentage of heat is also contributed by industrial processes, which are also ingeniously incorporated into the district heating system rather than being dumped into the surrounding environment. It appears to work very well, the Finnish people with whom I discussed it and the available literature seems to suggest that it is taken for granted, being a cheap and affective way to heat homes and contribute a good proportion of electricity.
It’s not just the cost savings of district heating that are alluring either; there is the potential to save a huge amount of carbon as well. Up to 10% of CO2 could be achieved just from switching from grid power to district heating, and because it’s possible to use renewables to provide this heat, this could be cut down further.
So why hasn’t this taken off in the UK? Well, there are a few thoughts on this; the first is that district heating has been used in the UK before, reaching a peak in the 60’s. However this district heating was poorly controlled with no individual thermostats on the homes, alternately making people’s houses into saunas (or freezers when the district boilers broke down). The second major issue is infrastructure, or rather the lack of it in the UK. Is it worth investing millions in such a system if the plan is to try to decentralise the power generation through domestic microgeneration? Finally is the fact that the majority of the UK already has a cheap way of heating homes using the gas network – something that UK in particular has invested in heavily.
So great idea, but then is there the desire, or is it worth pushing district heating forward in the UK? It would certainly take a big shift in thinking – but could it ultimately be worth it? Leave your thoughts!
Info on systems around the world courtesy of Wikipedia
Information on biomass district heating