It’s time to ‘turn up the heat’ on behalf of heat networks

HOW we heat our homes and buildings is a crucial part of Scotland’s climate change puzzle.

Currently around half of our emissions come from heating our homes and industry. 

Changing this is a big challenge as so many of Scotland’s buildings are old and leaky.

Whilst Scotland’s successful move to almost 100 per cent renewable electricity hasn’t seen a huge change for the consumer receiving electrons at the end of a wire, the move to greener heating will involve more visible changes closer to home.

Collaboration is going to be key – between central government and local authorities, who best understand their areas and the best strategies to tackle them.

But also between neighbours and neighbourhoods.

That’s because, in many cases, the move to ‘greener’ heating might be cheaper and easier if we share the new infrastructure between households

A good example is district heat networks. Basically, local heat networks work by delivering heat from a central source to homes and businesses through insulated hot water pipes underground – imagine a giant central heating system.

They can provide the link to sources of renewable heat that can’t easily be plugged directly into buildings – such as heat from rivers, sewers and waste. 

Organising our heating this way is simpler – rather than thousands of individual boilers owned and managed by each household, every house on a heat network is supplied by a single large source of heat.

Another plus to this method is that householders don’t need to worry about repairs, servicing and general maintenance, as that is transferred to the operators of the system, which could be the local council, a private company or perhaps, in future, a local community trust. 

Many may worry that this is a new and untried technology, and therefore might be reluctant to give up the reassurance of having a boiler in their home. 

But this form of heating isn’t new. In Denmark, for example, it’s widespread, as it was promoted as an alternative to increasingly expensive oil heating following the 1970s oil crises.

The benefits of a system of district heating here in Scotland could be particularly useful in densely-built urban areas; for example, inner city districts where historic tenements are largely difficult to insulate and often unsuited to alternative ‘green’ technologies like individual heat pumps. 

The growth of heat networks in Scotland could foster new forms of ownership.

In Denmark, many are owned by local authorities and operated on a municipal, not-for-profit basis. Heat networks can also be built in towns and villages, with many smaller schemes already operating in the Highlands on locally-available biomass.

In future, it may make more sense for small communities to club together to entrust the construction and operation of a collective heating system to a local development trust. Pooling resources is often a cheaper, and a more efficient way to heat buildings.

Another exciting angle being explored in Scotland is the use of public greenspace as a source of heat.

The ground stores lots of thermal energy, and ground source heat pumps can be used to extract it.

Thus. our parks and squares can provide an ideal source of clean heat, often in areas that lack alternatives.

Again this technology is already being used right here in Scotland with projects up and running at Caird Park in Dundee and Saughton Park in Edinburgh.

The new Biomes Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh will also be heated by heat pumps from neighbouring greenspace. Might we in future see groups of residents organising to set up their own projects?

So, with so many pros in its favour, it may surprise you to learn that, today, only around one per cent of Scotland’s heat is provided through heat networks.

To change this, we need government to create the conditions that will make these networks commonplace – moving us away from a pattern of piecemeal development, to one where networks are in whole districts, towns and even cities.

Legislation (here) currently going through the Scottish Parliament provides an opportunity to do that, by introducing licenses and planning powers to make new networks easier, and cheaper, to build. 

It’ll still need determination, drive and effort from government and wider society to mainstream this particular form of heating, which is why we, at WWF Scotland, have been working to include targets for heat network development in the Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill

As well as helping us to tackle the climate emergency, these projects could also bring new opportunities for Scotland’s construction sector, as part of a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19.

Around a third of a project’s costs are for activities like digging up roads and laying pipes in the ground – work that can be carried out by local, non-specialist companies. And, in Scotland, we already manufacture the large heat pumps that can power such networks. 

We believe that Scotland has an opportunity to make a real success of a tried and tested approach that could be game-changing for the way we heat our buildings, unlocking new sources of renewable energy and providing more efficient and reliable heating for households.

Fabrice Leveque is head of Policy at wildlife and conservation charity, WWF Scotland