The original ‘Heat and the City’ project (after which our research team is named) ran from 2010 to 2014 and examined the proposition that ‘cities’ were a missing level in energy policy, particularly in the UK. Decarbonisation was (and to a degree is) largely focused on two separate scales: large power generation initiatives, and building- or individual-scale change. We approached cities as an intermediary scale, focusing in on district heating as a potential infrastructure for low carbon, secure and affordable heat supply.
We used multiple research approaches to explore how district heating is being developed in the UK, what the implications of these patterns are, and what policy interventions could change these. These included interviews with a range of actors, including consultants, developers, local authorities, central and devolved governments, housing associations and financiers.
We also worked with practitioner Michael King to convene a series of workshops with the District Energy Vanguards Network, which were of immense value to aiding our understanding and also provided a unique forum for experienced public sector officers to exchange knowledge.
In addition we conducted a 10% sample survey of households on the Wyndford estate in Glasgow before and after their estate received an energy upgrade including a new district heating network, exploring impacts on energy bills, warmth, and broader issues about community and estate improvement.
Work in progress for the new district heating system Wyndford, Glasgow
The project recognised the multiple and contested ways ‘cities’ are understood, and followed the ways policymakers and practitioners conceived of the scale and composition of cities and district heating systems. Strikingly we found several different scales operative in practice and in debates. These scales worked together in some ways, but were in tension in others.
- In the UK, practitioners and policy makers tend to regard local government as a crucial actor in supporting the development of district heating networks. Their long term social (i.e. not just commercial) commitments to localities, their functions in planning, their existing relationships with other city actors and their ownership of significant numbers of large buildings are all cited as reasons local authorities are important to the success of district heating. But in the UK we found where local authorities had made progress, this was usually due to the fortuitous conjunction of a broad range of factors, not least the presence of one or two deeply committed local authority officers willing to work beyond their brief to hold complex projects together (some of these officers described themselves to us as ‘wilful individuals’ or even ‘lone nutters’). UK and Scottish governments have recognised these challenges and set up mechanisms to offer technical support to local government, though ambiguities in the role expected of local authorities (for example, the extent to which they should ‘own’ district heating development) coupled with increasing pressures on local authority budgets, mean many local authority energy teams continue to perceive their positions as precarious.
- While a common motif among district heating proponents was to ‘think big but start small’ we observed significant challenges moving beyond a fragmented patchwork approach to district heating development. Rather than infrastructure systems that grow over time, the majority of heat networks in the UK supply buildings under single ownership (such as a social housing estate or university campus) and rarely expand to new users. This contrasts with cases we observed in Europe where the problems to which district heating are a solution go beyond a small user base, and where governance and regulatory mechanisms create capacity to build larger (and growing) heat markets.
- Policy makers would like to drive more private finance into district heating, to enable development to proceed unconstrained by limits to public funds, and indeed both the Green Investment Bank and Scotland’s Renewable Energy Investment Fund tried to ‘crowd in’ private finance to district heating, but with little success. Financiers tend to regard the scale of current district heating development as unattractively small, leading to ideas around aggregating standardised projects (possibly across different areas) and refinancing.
Heat and the City research produced a variety of academic, policy and practitioner oriented outputs which can be found below and on our resources page.
We also produced a book drawing many of these facets of district heating together: Sustainable Urban Energy Policy – Heat and the City.
Heat and the City project