Heat networks will need to be an essential component in future heating strategies if the UK is to reach its net-zero goals, says Ken Hunnissett
At the Green Horizon Summit in November 2020, the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, now Finance Adviser to the PM for COP26, claimed that reaching net zero emissions will require a “whole economy transition” that represents “the greatest commercial opportunity of our time”.
Today, over 120 countries have committed to net zero carbon targets by 2050. Yet the consensus is that more decisive action is required today to mitigate the impacts of global warming. We have witnessed a rallying call across countries, industries and societies to seek out and adopt inclusive solutions to tackle climate change. Now is the time to deliver.
Heating our homes, businesses and industrial facilities is a core part of the problem and contributes to more than a third of the UK’s greenhouse emissions today. This means the shift towards cleaner, affordable and renewable heat is an infrastructure priority. Some have put forward hydrogen as a low-carbon or even fully renewable alternative to natural gas. However, as , the technology to produce it cleanly is more than ten years away and the costs remain unknown. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to do nothing until 2040 when hydrogen is potentially available.
One solution that has the proven capability of providing low cost, low carbon heat to thousands of buildings across the UK today are heat networks. With a significant push from the government providing incentives for businesses, consumers and investors, heat networks are the part of the solution that can be embraced today.
A low cost, low carbon solution for heating
Heat networks are a series of pipes (often underground) that use a local, centralised source, to transfer heat to up to thousands of buildings in a vicinity. The system is much more effective than the national grid, given its more direct approach, further, its sources can generate and distribute heat that may otherwise have gone to waste. It is also a tested solution.
To hasten the transition to heat networks from the more carbon-intensive national grid, the government has set aside £320m in grants and super low-interest loans to be distributed via its Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP) creating the market conditions for industry, local authorities and investors to come together in a self-sustaining heat network market. In regions all across England and Wales, over 20 projects have been awarded funding already; representing exciting and tangible milestones in decarbonising the UK energy system.
Most recently, was the October 29th announcement of £6,591,000 grant funding to the Solihull Town Centre Low carbon Energy Network. The funding will help decarbonise the town centre as part of wider efforts for it to be carbon neutral by 2030. The project, which will start by connecting nine existing buildings, demonstrates the adaptability of heat networks. Initially configured with Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) technology it was later decided to extract energy from the air.
Heat networks aligning with the economy of the future
As has been demonstrated in this extraordinary year, the tragedy of the pandemic has triggered a climate for change and an urgency to deliver a greener, cleaner and better world. 2020 has marked astonishing milestones for inflows into sustainable funds, with over $1tn being allocated to ESG funds globally and record inflows registered in the first half of the year alone. In the private sector, 70 pension funds and investment managers representing $16 trillion have designed a net zero framework to remove damaging carbon emissions across their portfolios by 2050.
Meanwhile following funding provided by the government to kick-start heat networks, in August the treasury announced a £3bn energy efficiency package “to save money, cut carbon, and create jobs”, with the ultimate goal of “promoting a clean, green recovery” from the lockdown. Heat networks are very much part of this green recovery as they are an already proven, adaptable and cost-effective solution for reducing emissions.
Delivering a low carbon future TODAY
HNIP funding that has been awarded to date will allow for more than 35,000 residential and non-residential customers to connect to a heat network. Our funded schemes also help to achieve carbon savings of more than 2,000tCO₂ per year. Such figures provide a clear indication of what could be achieved with increased deployment and the integration of heat networks into the energy system. Given that heat networks address a problem which contributes to 38% of our emissions, it is hard to underestimate the key role they could play in a rapidly developing green economy.