How to make heat networks happen in the UK

Written by: Paco Hevia | Published:

The benefits of Energy from Waste (EfW) projects go beyond jobs, reduction of greenhouse gases or even supporting local supply chains.

This is because there’s plenty of social, economic and environmental benefits of delivering decarbonised heat to users in the vicinity of the facility.

Amey has therefore chosen to focus on doing everything it can to turn this opportunity into a reality, focusing on appropriately-scaled projects which address the local need while delivering significant local benefits and retaining as much value as possible within the communities they serve.

Local benefits

Cambridge Econometrics has studied the potential impact of Amey’s proposed Waterbeach Waste Management Park EfW. This independent assessment said the EfW would deliver significant economic benefits including generating £45m in Gross Value Added (GVA) within the local area during construction and adding 10% to the park’s existing GVA of £27m per annum.

These economic incentives are in addition to the clear environmental and social benefits of constructing the facility, which include eliminating the need for landfill, reducing CO2 emissions by 35,000 tonnes per year compared to landfill and generating enough electricity to power 63,000 homes.

Heating local homes

Crucially, an EfW on Amey’s Waterbeach site will deliver the potential to supply a district heating network for new nearby homes.

Why is this important? There are two key drivers. Firstly utilising heat substantially improves the overall efficiency of EfW facilities, further reducing the carbon footprint of waste services. In the case of the Waterbeach EfW, utilising heat could reduce carbon emissions by an additional 8,850 tonnes per year.

Secondly, it can also significantly reduce emissions from homes and businesses, providing long lasting, intergenerational economic and social benefits. Allied to this, utilising heat underlines the importance and anchors the true value of communities taking responsibility for their waste in contrast to the lost opportunity from exporting our waste out of county or country.

Drivers for change

Many EfW projects have evaluated the potential for supplying heat, but only few have so far managed to make this a reality.

What has changed? One aspect is price, but the other is the fact that the UK is the first major economy to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The target will require major changes to the way we live, work and travel – and buildings account for roughly 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

The government has announced that gas heating will be banned for homes from 2025. Sources of affordable, sustainable and low carbon heat will be essential and EfW presents a real opportunity to ensure new homes do not result in yet more families facing the prospect of fuel poverty and its consequential social and economic costs to society. Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change’s report specifically references the need for heat networks to be deployed.

Amey commissioned a second study by Cambridge Econometrics to look into the potential costs and benefits of a district heating scheme for Waterbeach New Town supplied by the Waterbeach EfW and compared them with a natural gas heating system.

The results found annual costs to homeowners were estimated to be around 5% lower from the district heating system. The homeowner was able to live in the property and enjoy maintenance-free heating over the medium term as there was no gas boiler to break down, require servicing, insuring or replacing.

While the one-off capital installation costs of a district heating systems are higher, the cost difference will likely be reversed from 2025 compared to more expensive heat pumps or other alternative energy sources.

A district heating system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heating by around 798kgCO2eq per year per dwelling, and lower costs of heating via district heating systems would be expected to reduce the occurrence of excess cold within dwellings.

This last point is important because as the Cambridge Econometrics report notes, on average, the incidence of medical harm due to excess cold is 1 in every 320 homes, equating to 34 in 11,000 homes. Each harmful outcome that is avoided saves the NHS an estimated £17,000. In addition, improved educational attainment can also be expected in some households.

Improving the reach

We are also hoping to enable the wider community to benefit from the EfW facility outside of any heat network.

Amey is proposing a new £50,000 fund generated by waste treated via the EfW facility to be used to support energy efficiency measures for homes near to the facility that may not be able to connect to the heat network, among other good causes.

The new fund aims to reduce carbon emissions and help local residents to save money on their fuel bills through investment in the fabric of buildings.

While some of the fund will be dedicated to grants awarded to those in fuel hardship, a proportion would be 3-5 year loans which will be returned, meaning the fund will grow in real terms from year three onwards.

Making change happen

We are currently evaluating other opportunities for heat networks across the country, particularly on the Isle of Wight. This location is hugely promising in terms of its potential to deliver heat alongside electricity and could provide great additional value to the public estate.

District heating is commonplace across Europe and over the last 10 years new build district heating projects have become more common across the UK. Planned properly, the system will require only modest changes to an individual property and represents one of the most effective ways to decarbonise at scale.

The greatest change required is to adopt a longer term view which enables all stakeholders to look not just at the cost of building a building, but its value and cost of operating it – in real terms but also in wider societal and environmental terms.

These potentially significant benefits from the wider social and environmental value of waste infrastructure and in particular EfW facilities are additional to the clear need for more waste treatment capacity in the UK providing local solutions at an appropriate scale.

Amey is continuing to ensure our actions demonstrate our commitment to investing in local communities in order to deliver better places to live, work and travel.

Paco Hevia is MD of waste treatment at Amey

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