How heat networks will help ensure a net zero future

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The ability of heat networks to help decarbonisation of heat has made them a 'go to' solution in new build. Pete Mills of Bosch C&I discusses their importance. 

Heat networks, otherwise known as district heating, are becoming an ever greater part of the projects our industry is involved with. Their ability to help the decarbonisation of heat, both now and in the future, has made them a “go to” option in the new build sector, as well as those undergoing deep renovation works.

There is no doubt that their unique ability to use waste heat will become more important, as we endeavour to tackle one of the most challenging sectors, so far identified as a priority to meet our carbon commitments. It’s important then, that we continue to remember how many more people will rely on these complex systems to provide their heating and hot water needs. Heat networks, unlike any other sector in the heating industry are a natural monopoly, meaning consumer protection is paramount.

This topic has been one, which in spite of the current crisis and the troubled past political year, Government has wished to maintain momentum with. So, even though the consultation period for the Heat Networks: Building a Market Framework regulation has been extended, there has been determination to push on, wherever this is possible. The first phase of consultation has now closed and we await the initial proposals from Government, expected later this year.

This proposed regulation came about as a result of the Competition and Markets Authorities (CMA) market study back in 2017 and was a recommendation by the CMA to Government. It would put heat networks on a similar footing to other regulated utilities and ensure there is a route for consumer protection, overseen by an ombudsman. Crucially for those involved with the installation and commissioning of heat networks, it will mean some minimum technical standards will very likely be applied. This is something that was singled out by the CMA as a priority, together with a recommendation that industry should not wait for regulation, before tackling technical improvements.  The vast majority of the industry has and should welcome the principle behind new regulation, as it will strengthen investor confidence in the sector, as well as addressing the key consumer protection issues.

So, what may this look like for those of us at the coal face installing heat networks?

It is most likely that the revised version of CIBSE CP1 (2020) will form the basis of a technical standard. CP1 has been under a review process for some time now and will incorporate significant changes to make the standard verifiable. Probably the most significant of these changes is the introduction of the requirement for independent acceptance testing. This involves testing of key metrics in individual dwellings to ensure the design targets are being met, either as a percentage of the dwellings or 100%. For some involved in the installation process, this may on the face of it seem a doubling of their work, but results so far have shown this process to have really positive benefits with far fewer call backs and improved user satisfaction.

Whatever instrument ends up being used to ensure minimum technical standards are applied, it is likely there will be far more focus on the importance of the commissioning stage. Analysis of reported problems in heat networks, has highlighted that greater attention at the commissioning stage can avoid costly remedial works for the contractor and disruption for the end user. Of course this means more time needs to be allocated for this stage, but in the long run the savings are clear.

Pete Mills

Minimum technical standards will create a new base level of expectation of the key stages of design, installation and commissioning, which can be applied across the industry. There may need to be some consideration how they would be applied to smaller heat networks, to ensure they do not become burdensome, but the key principles are likely to be adhered to.

Recording of key actions such as verifying flow rates, flushing and venting, balancing and ensuring the all-important return temperatures are being achieved, should help to identify issues. The whole industry would benefit from a more unified approach to commissioning heat networks, that drawn upon the experience that is starting to building up for UK specific heat networks. The improving use of monitoring data to help verify how heat networks are performing, can assist this process. Heat networks take time, both to build out and to bed in and programmes must take this into consideration.

At a recent discussion on skills in the heat network industry, it was clear that those involved in installing and commissioning would benefit from recognised levels of training. Both to raise aspirations and recognition of the importance of quality work, but also improve the uniformity of the outcomes. I believe this is a challenge that our industry should do its best to rise to. We have seen the benefits it has provided in the gas boiler industry over the years and how it has helped many to grow better businesses. Our challenge now is to replicate this for the heat network industry. The guidance from CIBSE CP1 (2020) as well as the proposed British Standard for Heat Interface Units, could form a basis for the curriculum needed to get consistent training up and running.

Better quality heat networks are the foundation of providing good consumer outcomes. The historical issues that we have seen in a small number of heat networks need to be addressed from start to finish. Overheating buildings and significant heat losses should no longer be tolerated.  To get things right, starts with good close design based around low temperatures wherever possible. Oversizing must be reduced and realistic targets agreed with clients at the outset. This means a partnership between client and designer where risks are discussed and understood.

Carbon reduction in heat networks too, must be improved. The Committee on Climate Change report highlighted that there is still much to do, with currently only 7% of the energy used in heat networks coming from renewable sources. Too often we see renewable heat generators as the soft target for capital cost reduction, which is a concern, as ultimately heat networks need to achieve net zero as much as any other form of heating.

It is vital that heat networks continue to offer affordable and dependable heating and hot water to those who are connected to them, if they are to realise the carbon saving potential the UK is looking for. Affordability for the consumer will be make or break for any technology solution used to decarbonise our heating needs and this is true for both new build and deep renovation projects.

Pete Mills is Commercial Technical Operations Manager for Bosch Commercial & Industry. He is also the Chairman of MEHNA (Manufacturers of Equipment for Heat Networks Association) as well as representing HIU manufacturers on the BESA Test Regime Steering Group.

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