Central Heating for Cities

Simon Guerrier speaks to the team behind a pioneering heat network being developed in the heart of London.

Heat networks aren’t new. Rather than installing an individual gas boiler in every apartment in a block of flats, or in every premises in a commercial development, hot water is supplied to all units from a single source. But now, as part of wider efforts to decarbonise, we’re seeing highly efficient heat networks installed on much larger scales, to whole communities, actively encouraged by government.

‘Heat networks are set to play an increasingly vital role in the UK,’ says Luca Grella, Innovation Programme Delivery Manager at UK Power Networks. ‘According to the Climate Change Committee, they’re projected to contribute around 18% of UK heat by 2050, a significant rise from the current 2%.’ Luca is part of the team involved in Heatropolis, a heat network being developed in the Kings Cross area of London, which will provide heat and power to premises including Google and Nike’s UK HQs, and 2,400 homes.

The hope is to use the Heatropolis initiative to better understand the options so that similar projects across the country can more efficiently decarbonise while delivering reliable heating and power.

The government is keen to support such projects that reduce energy bills for consumers — and will only support projects that don’t cost consumers more than alternative options. To qualify for support from regulator Ofgem’s strategic innovation fund (SIF) the Heatropolis project had to demonstrate that it ‘delivers benefits for customers and for the environment,’ as well as addressing the regulator’s key strategic challenges. Ofgem was also keen to see ‘collaboration between utilities, technology developers, academia, local authorities and other key stakeholders in the energy industry.’ Having met those conditions, SIF support was duly awarded to the Heatropolis project in April 2023.

Since then, Luca says the team are in regular contact with both Ofgem and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to ‘track progress, adhere to specific project conditions, ensure widespread dissemination and sharing of learnings across our industry and to consumers.’ Most important of all, says Luca, is the ‘focus on delivering innovative value.’

For both the SIF and the UK Power Networks team, a core principle is ‘to facilitate a “just transition” to achieve net zero at the lowest cost for customers.’ Luca explains that part of the issue is being ready for changing demands. At the moment, ‘heat networks mainly rely on fossil fuels,’ says Luca. ‘But as the country moves closer to net zero targets there will be a transition towards electrification and a greater demand for electricity to power the heat networks, alongside other decarbonisation efforts such as encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.’

That means care must to be taken to protect local electricity networks. ‘Excessive demand would necessitate upgrades to our infrastructure and we want to avoid reinforcement costs which would be an element of customers’ bills. We want to make sure our idea is giving the best value to the customer, as well as delivering impact to the right industry problem.’ To do this, ‘We’re engaging experts encompassing areas like flexibility, connections and network planning to ensure our endeavours are grounded in substantial data and industry standards. Our project partner Passiv has provided project management, smart control testing, a commercial and operational framework, dissemination and beta planning. Additionally, subcontracted specialists are enlisted to support various activities. Metropolitan serves as the heat network operator, providing site and technical designs.’

This is a large scale, ambitious project in a prominent location in the heart of London, where big name brands are headquartered. What involvement do the likes of Google and Nike have in the project? ‘The entire Kings Cross estate is involved in this initiative to enhance building and network efficiency,’ says Luca. ‘The level of engagement has been outstanding.’ The team provides regular updates to all stakeholders through the estate’s sustainability forum. ‘So far, we’ve outlined the overarching decarbonisation roadmap and the necessary actions building owners and operators must take to contribute.’

Local residents and businesses stand to save money on bills, and the Heatropolis project supports government aims to decarbonise. The local electricity network is protected without the need for costly enhancements to the infrastructure. But that’s not all. ‘Additional benefits include improved planning and forecasting capabilities,’ says Luca, ‘providing valuable data to support the potential mitigation of reinforcement, and a better understanding of market flexibility to manage supply and demand effectively. It would also enable us to offer the best flexibility options to customers through our distribution system operator’s flexibility teams – not to mention other benefits to the wider energy system.’

It all sounds very positive, so how far along is the project at this moment? ‘We’re currently in the “Alpha” phase of the second round of the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) Round 2,’ says Luca. ‘This stage focuses on building on findings made during the discovery phase by validating assumptions, testing technical requirements and refining the commercial mechanisms necessary to implement our Heatropolis framework.’

‘Our collaboration with operator Metropolitan is progressing well. We are actively working on key deliverables, including selecting a testing site for our smart controls, understanding the available data feeds for testing assumptions, refining the cost-benefit analysis and engaging with partners. We’re also working with subject matter experts across UK Power Networks’ teams to evaluate options agreed on by heat network operators.’

‘The modelling will start once we have collected sufficient input from our subject matter experts. The actual trial will be conducted during the “Beta” phase, planned to start at the end of 2024 providing our application is successful.’

But even at this early stage, Luca says they’ve already learned a great deal. ‘Our initial findings demonstrate that heat networks can play a significant role in fostering a more adaptable, low-carbon energy system, ultimately leading to cost reductions,’ he says. The team are now focused on ‘assessing this flexibility and determining the optimal approach to maximise overall system value.’ They’re also, ‘working on establishing a clear framework for heat network operators and electricity network operators to collaborate on connection arrangements that incentivise investment in resilient and reliable electrical networks.’ The hope is that, ‘this framework will facilitate greater decarbonisation of heat supply to buildings through efficient heat networks, delivering benefits for both consumers and the environment.’

Many heat networks are already powered by green energy. Air-source and ground-source heat pumps are commonly used to produce the heat that is then distributed to homes and businesses connected to the system. But innovative alternatives include:

• Langarth District Heat Network in Cornwall, where a borehole drilled 5,275m into the ground will access geothermal energy to heat some 3,800 homes.

• Torry Heat Network in Aberdeen will recycle energy produced by the new East Tullos plant disposing of otherwise non-recyclable waste from local councils.

• Bolton District Heating Network will use a heat pump to extract waste heat from the town’s combined sewer

This article was first published in the March issue of Air Quality News Magazine.


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