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There is an attitude amongst the general public that, in terms of mitigating the climate crisis, an individual cannot make a significant difference. This attitude is understandable. As a singular being amongst 7.8 billion others, it might seem incomprehensible that a decision to make the effort to live a low carbon life has any impact.

However, recent studies are finding that it is the lack of public understanding that is the biggest inhibitor in fighting climate change and transitioning to low carbon solutions.

A new report by the Garfield Weston Foundation surveyed 68 environmental organisations across the UK and found that almost half of environmental charities say the lack of public understanding is their biggest challenge when it comes to solving important issues. This is particularly acute when we consider heat decarbonisation.

The Committee on Climate Change has impressed in its reports the urgency of tackling the climate crisis and the Government’s response to this has been positive – starting with the first global legal commitment of a country to net zero by 2050 with local authorities following suit and even setting more ambitious targets. We have now been joined by 120 other countries. So, it is essential that we continue to lead the way but how can we ensure that the public is brought along with us.

When asked about addressing climate change, heat networks are probably not the first thing that would come to mind. Underground pipes are not often visible unless you walk past the construction site and the energy centres are not as aesthetically pleasing as electric vehicles or as trendy as switching to a vegan lifestyle. However, heat actually accounts for 37% of UK emissions. Some architects are working hard to change this as shown by the impressive Manchester Tower of Light (below) which is actually flue tower for the combined heat and power plant. Local artists are also being brought onboard to develop eye-catching artwork, such as the Leeds PIPES heat network, delivered by Vital Energi. These projects highlight the import role that heat networks are playing in decarbonisation efforts whilst increasing awareness.

If you are surprised by this, you are not alone. A report published by the Department for Business, Energy and  Industrial Strategy (BEIS) explored knowledge and attitudes in Great Britain towards a transition to low-carbon heat. It found that, although the general public were consistently supportive of policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, awareness of low carbon heating technologies was especially low. This was further emphasized by a study by the Social Market Foundation which found that awareness of community heating was only around 10%.

With only a minority of people understanding the low-carbon heating technologies available, the transition to a low carbon economy may seem out of reach. However, there is a positive attitude towards low carbon heating technology and in particular recognition of the role for heat networks. The Climate Citizens Assembly, which convened between January and May 2020, showed great support for heat networks with 66% of people stating that district heating should be enforced with 17% selecting this as their top choice for policy intervention to help the UK get to net zero.

There are currently over 14,000 heat networks of varying sizes and ages in the UK. The pipeline of future projects continues to grow and investor interest in the market is high. Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP) funding that has been awarded to date will allow for more than 35,000 new residential and non-residential customers to connect to a heat network. Through utilizing waste heat, low carbon energy source and efficient distribution pipes, HNIP funded schemes are expected to deliver substantial carbon savings across whole communities, contributing to achieving our climate change aspirations.

HNIP funded project: Manchester’s ‘Tower of Light’

Although the responsibility lies primarily on the Government to provide the right regulatory framework and financial support to drive the development of a self-sustaining heat networks market, this will ultimately not be successful without public uptake and acceptance. Recent consultations on the future Green Heat Network Fund and the Market Framework combined with discussions on heat network zoning are a welcome necessary step to enable this sector to meet its potential. It is however equally important that individuals understand the key role they must play on the road to net zero. It appears many already appreciate this with 80% of the Assembly agreeing that there is a role for individual responsibility in decarbonising heat yet many do not know what this really means for them.

Advocating and promoting heat networks to consumers, local government and policy makers will be crucial as we consider how to meet our net zero aspirations. The heat networks sector must continue to share success stories and highlight the essential contribution heat networks make in reducing our emissions to raise awareness of this technology agnostic, localised low carbon heating solution. The £320 million Heat Networks Investment Project is still open for applications from local authorities, private sector companies and communities and we welcome the opportunity to hear more about projects old and new so please get in touch and help us showcase the important work you do.


By Samantha Crichton, Senior Consultant at Ecuity Consulting LLP

Originally published: 

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