As we strive towards the UK’s 2050 net zero target, heating remains the leading source of household emissions. The carbon footprint of keeping cosy can’t be understated. Energy Catapult Analysis found that the average household emits a staggering 2,745kg of CO2 each year from heating alone. Indeed, heating our homes and indoor spaces contributes to 19% of the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

That boiler in your closet isn’t just warming your bath; it’s warming the planet too.

Today’s building regulations are nudging new developments towards a low carbon future, yet the overwhelming majority of the UK’s 23 million existing homes are still reliant on carbon-intensive oil and gas boilers. These homes require significant upgrades and adaptation in order to switch their heating supply to renewables.

This comes at a heavy price for homeowners. Solutions such as Air Source or Ground Source heat pumps carry high upfront costs, and often provide lower temperatures than residents have become accustomed to. In order to maintain previous levels of comfort, they might find themselves having to shell out further for larger radiators or under-floor heating.

Decarbonising heat is an essential strand in the net zero strategy, but given the costs involved for individual consumers, it’s little wonder that progress has been slow.

Heat networks can provide the answer.

Local authorities have a major role to play in delivering them on behalf of their communities. Luckily, there are government grants available to help make this a reality, but it’s important to move fast and take advantage today.

What are they?

Heat networks (also known as district heating) supply heat from one central source – potentially using green energy or waste heat from power plants – and deliver hot water to multiple households simultaneously via a network of underground pipes.

They can be developed to heat new developments or as a retrofit project to serve existing building stock. The size of these networks can range from a small cluster of buildings to an entire city – and can radically reduce heating’s overall carbon footprint.

The benefits can’t be ignored.

Heat networks offer reliable heat supply and low maintenance for homeowners. Crucially, once new and more efficient green technologies emerge, the lone central heat source can simply be replaced, and every connected household can instantly benefit – rather than thousands of individual homes each requiring expensive and invasive work.

District heating brings the additional bonus of putting more money in household pockets. Larger heat networks can offer lower prices for the final consumer over time, in addition to lower upfront and maintenance costs. This means that local authorities can deliver significant savings for the most vulnerable in their communities.

With swathes of the country living in fuel poverty – approximately 2.4 million households in 2018 – the wider deployment of heat networks is seen as one of the UK’s key strategies in tackling the issue. BEIS found that the median heating and hot water bill for consumers on a heat network was £100 a year less than for those reliant on individual systems, while The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill went even further, recently estimating annual household fuel savings at around £130.

Joining the Network

Only 2% of UK homes are currently served by heat networks. As a country, we’re lagging well behind some of our European peers – in Denmark, for example, over 60% of homes are connected to district heating.

But there is a serious appetite for change, at both government and local level.

The Committee on Climate Change recommend that heat networks should be responsible for 20% of UK heating by 2050, and there are various financial incentives in place to help the country achieve this target.

The government has invested £320m in district heating since 2015 through the Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP); and has recently announced the Green Heat Network Fund (GHNF), a new investment programme for low carbon heat networks set to begin next year.

Keen-to-connect local authorities can apply for grants to get their projects off the ground. The best funding avenues is The Heat Network Delivery Unit (HNDU), which provides grant funding and guidance to local authorities for the early stages of heat network project development. The Unit has so far awarded £23m across nine funding rounds, supporting 150 local authorities in delivering over 250 projects to date. Smaller rural areas, instead, can receive funding to support renewable energy projects through the Rural Community Energy Fund (RCEF).

Local authorities are among the unsung heroes of the war on climate change. Many have already played a major role in spearheading sustainable change, with over 300 having declared a climate emergency, and more working towards reducing or totally neutralizing their carbon emissions.

Heat networks can be valuable tools in this on-going battle, and these generous government incentives can bring them within reach.

No better time

The first step for any local authority with ambitions of creating their own heat network is conducting a feasibility study and heat mapping within the local area. This will assess the population density and energy demands of residents, while detailed energy master planning will reveal whether the opportunity exists for district heating.

Both HNDU and RCEF can provide the financial support to conduct this essential analysis – allowing local authorities to hire consultants to assess the project’s potential. Once the feasibility is confirmed, local authorities can then request further grants to develop the project, secure the necessary permits, and – finally – construct the heat network.

HNDU’s eleventh Bidding Round has just opened. It’s well worth getting an application together sooner rather than later. We’ve seen in the past year how the funding landscape can change at short notice. The abrupt end of the Green Homes Grant and the Renewable Heat Incentive in particular left consumers reeling. When incentives are in place, it’s best to take advantage and apply for support before it’s too late.

Time to Connect

Here at Avieco we can help guide you through the bidding process.

Our sustainability experts can support you in every project stage to help make your heat network happen.

We have significant experience in the area, and are currently working with local authorities up and down the country to help them make the exciting switch to district heating.

Our team took the reigns in project managing the development of the UK’s first-ever rural retrofit heat network at Swaffham Prior, working alongside local authorities to deliver a historic pilot scheme that will reduce carbon emissions in the village by two-thirds, and has put this Cambridgeshire community right at the forefront of cutting-edge sustainable solutions.

The UK’s commitment to net zero can only be reached by decarbonising our housing stock – both old and new – and eliminating heating’s heavy carbon footprint is an essential step. With incentives for individual solutions for homeowners falling by the wayside, local authority-led, large-scale solutions are more vital than ever.

Heat networks offer the answer: an agile response to climate change that can bring concrete benefits to the most vulnerable in the local community.

Stay in the loop

more than a word.

We get that change is not easy. But we must be brave, challenge old ways, set new habits, embrace new thinking.