District heating operators need to prioritise performance in the realm of customer service if the benefits of being part of a heat network aren’t to be overshadowed.

Speaking to Decentralized Energy, David Paterson, Director at Pinnacle Power said increasing digitization represents an opportunity for the sector to up its game in boosting user confidence. “There is massive expectation from residents that everything is digital for district heating– massive expectation that they can access all their bills online, access customer service and there is a flawless system that works very well. The energy industry, as a whole, has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to billing.”

“Customer service is the one thing that drives district heating regardless of how well your system works. If it gets a bad reputation and we’ve seen systems in the UK get a bad reputation because billing is poor or the customer service hasn’t worked, it’s so easy for communities to galvanise now using social media and spread negative publicity about district heating. That customer service is every bit as important as the engineering and carbon efficiency and technical side.”

One of Pinnacle Power’s biggest successes has been its role as operator of the Greenwich heat network in London. 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is removed per year, thanks to that scheme, with minimum disruption to tenants.

“For this project in Greenwich we put together a governance committee and the regulation that comes with it came into force. The committee hast has the Greater London Authority and Royal borough of Greenwich sitting on it to oversee everything that’s involved, such as how the heat price was set, how customers are dealt with, how heat provision works. They look at all the KPIs regarding how we operate the system and it’s been a really big success and really positive for the residents because they know there is someone independent that’s looking at the prices that they are not on a monopoly, being charged through the roof.”

A major coup for the company involved the incorporation of the Intercontinental Hotel into the Greenwich network. Hotels see the benefit in connecting their buildings to heat networks as more space is freed up for rooms.

For small and medium businesses choosing to locate near residential areas it’s equally advantageous -in terms of space saving, with small heat exchangers the only requirement.

So what are the chances of adding the giant worldwide entertainment venue close by? “The 02 are not connected but it could be for the future and it certainly would be of benefit to them, and make sense to them and us to incorporate them on to the network.”

Some projects in London and beyond have not garnered good publicity and Paterson says there are varying reasons why that has been the case. But they all point back to the same problem of inadequate communication with residential stakeholders. “There needs to be good interaction with the residents. You need to be upfront about the problems that district heating has a reputation for having. That namely revolves around billing, and a lack of clarity on what you are being charged re-price.”

“A lot of education needs to happen regarding district heating. It’s a small market at the moment compared with the likes of Denmark where 95 per cent of Copenhagen has it.”

“They have a pipe bringing cold water and a pipe bringing hot water- its second nature and they don’t have to think about it. It’s still quite alien to the UK market.“

Despite what some notable critics assert on the subject, Paterson believes district heating and insulation can work well as complementary energy-efficient technologies, rather than the latter making the former redundant. “A lot can be done on the insulation side of things- we can still heat the insulated building and it’s still efficient but the main heat loss on a heat network is in the building.”
Greenwich, London
“So all the rises  and laterals and pipework that run through the building is typically installed to a really poor standard and we have seen heat losses of between 15 and 50 per cent just in the building alone. This means you get overheated corridors and a huge inefficiency there.”

“Whereas the underground pipework between buildings and between energy centres only lose between 3 and 5 per cent so there is a massive hole that needs to be filled. That’s being looked at and the standards for insulation are improving add we are getting there but there is still a lot of work to do.”

There is a growing appreciation among cities around the UK of what district heating can do, with Aberdeen, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol, Leeds and Cambridge among them. “It’s growing and local authorities are becoming more proactive. More money is being made available, with £320m allocated earlier this year by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). That helps kick-start feasibility for local authorities and a really positive move.”

Source: Decentralised Energy