District Heating and CHP – why engaging users is critical

April 15th, 2015 by

After years of talk, district heating and CHP appear to be coming of age with schemes being planned across the UK. But new evidence suggests that to realise the full benefits end users need to be at the heart of the development process from the get-go. Climate Works is working with Lantern (UK) Ltd to establish the most effective way of doing this.

For more than a decade District Heating and Combined Heat and Power have been touted as two of the big wins for reducing domestic and non-domestic energy costs and cutting pollution from fossil fuels. Whilst district heating is viewed as ‘normal’ in Austria, Germany and Scandinavia, in the UK it’s still quite ‘novel’ and take-up has been slow by comparison.

But projects now being planned or underway in locations such as Enfield, Exeter, and Bristol to name three, have the potential to connect up thousands of users in existing and new buildings.

Unsurprisingly, district heating and CHP tend to be treated as engineering projects first and foremost. But evidence is starting to emerge from operational schemes which suggests this could be a mistake, and that the full benefits can only be realised by working with the end users – the businesses and homes who will purchase the heat – from the outset.

London Ecopark

Heat produced by an energy-from-waste facility in north London will be used to provide hot water to homes across the Lee Valley.


Three key issues are surfacing. First, the models used to predict demand for heat are just that ‘models’ with a set of assumptions about how and when heat (and in some cases cooling) is needed. For non-residential buildings and uses predicting demand is often easier – commercial users tend to have better records and demand profiles. But in the residential sector it’s much harder to predict what individuals actually do. Models come preloaded with assumptions which are often wrong or too rational to deal with the average normal ‘irrational’ family. Understanding these behaviours is critical to getting the system design and the financial model right. And that means really understanding how users behave in order to test models and assumptions before the system is built.

Second, to get the most from district heating and CHP system users need to understand how to use them in order to optimise performance and reap the efficiency and cost benefits. This means a thorough appreciation of how it works.

There is plenty of evidence that people tend to approach new heating systems as if they are variations of what they already know – quite often this means gas fuelled wet central heating. Heat pumps in the residential sector and biomass heating systems in non-residential buildings both provide examples of technologies which can fail to achieve their potential because of this.

For district heating the transition should be less of a leap and more of a step but proper information, advice and guidance is essential. A small variation in user behaviour can produce a big impact on system performance when multiplied several hundred times.

Third, DH and CHP systems will usually be designed around one or more ‘anchor loads’, such as leisure centres, hospitals, manufacturing etc which helps to balance the system with a year a round demand for heat. Knowing how and when to open discussions with these potential users is essential.

For businesses data on energy consumption is likely to be viewed as commercially sensitive plus they may already have well developed energy management plans and may not take kindly to a third party asking if they would like to abandon their plans and tap into a local district heating scheme. Also senior managers may have only a scant knowledge of what is on offer and the potential benefits at hand.

Eon Energy Centre

Eon Energy Centre Cranbrook Exeter which houses a CHP system serving 800 homes & incorporates a 250kWp PV system. Photo TGE Group.

As district heating and CHP schemes roll out across the UK there is the potential risk of schemes developing in parallel but independently, with developers repeating the same errors whilst endeavouring to reinvent the wheel.

To address this Climate Works has teamed up with Lantern (UK) Ltd to find out what how developers are approaching the issue of user engagement, what’s working well and what isn’t and to develop guidance and advice which can be shared across the sector.

The aim is to help developers cut through the innovation cycle to build schemes which fulfil their potential to cut energy costs, and emissions.

If you would like to talk to us about this or a similar project or are looking for support, then get in touch with Mark Letcher at Climate Works (0117 903 0361) or Amy Hammond at Lantern (UK) (07502 985 921).

Sources and links

Bristol City Council district heating. Click here.

Enfield Council district heating. Click here.

Exeter and East Devon District heating. Click here.

Written by

Environmental consultant, facilitator, founder & Director of Climate Works Ltd.