The Romans were the first to discover the benefits of hot water in pipes. We can trace the roots of district heating to the hot water-heated baths and greenhouses of the ancient Roman Empire.
Also, in 14th-century France, hot water was appreciated in Chaudes-Aigues, where a hot water distribution system provided heat for around 30 houses with something as modern as geothermal energy. This is regarded as the first real district heating system in the World.
First-movers in North America
In Annapolis, Maryland, just 50 miles from Washington D.C. the U.S. Naval Academy started a steam district heating service in 1853. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began coal-fired steam heating in 1916 when it moved to Cambridge in Massachusetts. But the first commercially successful district heating system was launched in Lockport, New York in 1877 by American hydraulic engineer Birdsill Holly. He is considered the founder of modern district heating.
The steam system currently supplying Manhattan in New York City was put into operation as early as 1882 by the New York Steam Company. It used steam from coal-fired boilers to heat the buildings. The system grew to become one of the largest district heating systems in the world, serving thousands of customers.
Early European development
Centrally produced district heating has existed for almost 150 years, with systems tested as far back as the late 19th century in the German city of Hamburg and New York. Germany’s first district heating system was established in Frankfurt in 1896 to supply heat to a large hospital.
The Danish story of a waste incineration plant
In the late 19th century, both the environment and a future-orientated heat supply were put on the agenda of the city council of Frederiksberg which is an independent municipality situated in the western part of Copenhagen City. Combined heat and power production based on household waste incineration then became the starting signal for the development of district heating in the municipality.
Development in northern Europe
Finland and Sweden
The first district heating system in Finland was established in the city of Vaasa in 1902 and the first in Sweden was established in 1920 in the city of Västerås, both with the aim of providing heat to public buildings. The first municipal district heating plant in Sweden was set up in Karlstad in 1948.
National development led by the local municipality in Denmark
The centralized form of heat supply grew steadily in the 20s and 30s, and gradually regular district heating substations appeared in connection with the development of large adjoining housing areas. When the power stations in the large cities changed from diesel to steam heating in the 30s, many of them were carried out as combined heat and power plants since the earlier development had obliged the stations to deliver heat as well.
Natural gas is taking over in the United States
By the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of district heating began to wane as natural gas became a cheaper and more widely available source of energy. Today, district heating is still used in some cities, particularly in northern states where it is more common to use steam to heat buildings. However, it remains a relatively niche technology compared to other heating options.
Newer District Heating history
1973: The energy crises boosted the development in Denmark
It is important to note that district heating in Denmark developed in the same manner as in other countries before the energy crisis hit the western countries in 1973/74. At that time, energy consumption per inhabitant was extremely high. The energy crisis created an urgent need for crucial change in the Danish energy system. As a country the whole economy was threatened because Denmark at the time imported almost 100% of all the fossil fuels required to generate heat.
Recent years until today
European countries with focus on the green transition
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in district heating in both the Netherlands, Germany and Poland to reduce greenhouse emissions and increase energy efficiency. Currently, the Netherlands has around 25 district heating systems in operation, with a total installed capacity of around 3.5 GW. Germany has more than 6,000 district heating systems in operation, with a total installed capacity of around 25 GW. Today, Poland has more than 1,500 district heating systems in operation, with a total of around 22 GW. France has more than 600 district heating systems in operation, with a total capacity of around 15 GW.
In all these European countries, the systems primarily serve large housing complexes, hospitals, universities, and industrial areas and are supplied by a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy sources.
If you’re curious about the history of district heating, you’ll definitely want to check out some of the great articles available in Hot Cool.
District heating has been around for over a century, and it’s a fascinating topic with a rich history. One article you might want to start with is “District Heating in Greater Copenhagen”, written by Lars Gullev. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the development of district heating systems, starting in 1903 in Frederiksberg to present day Copenhagen. It covers the key technological and economic drivers that have influenced the development of district heating, as well as some of the challenges and obstacles that have been faced along the way.