by Linda Bertelsen

How do we, as a small nation, contribute to the climate change emergency? What can a local authority or public body do to reduce our carbon footprint and provide green energy at affordable prices?

By Michael McGuinness, Economic Development Manager, West Dunbartonshire Council

West Dunbartonshire Council is a small Local Authority supporting 90,000 citizens west of Glasgow, the host city for COP26 in November 2021. It is located next to the famous Loch Lomond Trossachs National Park, which has an outstanding natural environment.

A new District Heating Energy Centre

Most of the Local Authority has the banks of the River Clyde along its length. Our new District Heating Energy Centre takes pride in its place at the heart of what was the John Brown Shipyards, where the three magnificent ocean-going liners of the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth 2 were constructed and launched. 

Those traditional industries have long gone in our main town of Clydebank; however, we continue to strive to regenerate our communities, particularly in large vacant and derelict sites such as this site we now call Queens Quay.

In partnership with the landowners, the Council embarked on a venture to transform the former shipyard site many years ago. We have seen some successes with a new college complex, two office blocks, and the development of a new leisure centre. We also have the world’s oldest giant cantilever crane, the Titan Crane, which operates as a visitor experience facility.

In the last few years, the Council has built a ninety-bed care home, and a new block of 149 social homes is coming out of the ground, along with a magnificent new health centre for our community, all due for completion in late 2021. 

The journey to regenerate the site regained impetus about five years ago, and one of the early ambitions was to ensure that the Council could contribute to our Climate Emergency and look at how we could provide green energy across the site, reducing our carbon footprint.

Water-sourced heat pumps

Early studies were embarked on with several expert consultants, and we came across a local Glasgow company, Star Refrigeration. They were very keen to look at water-sourced heat pumps, primarily based upon their Drammen experience many years previously. 

Our site was next to the tidal River Clyde, and we had an ideal basin arrangement to extract and deposit the large volume of seawater required to run a district heating energy centre.

The Council and partners were convinced that we could make this work following our visit to the All-Energy exhibition and guidance from our consultants, together with an introduction to some very knowledgeable Danish veterans in heat supply. However, this would require significant Capital funding and commitment from the Council. 

The Scottish Government introduced a competitive grant funding entitled Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme in 2015 made up of European Structural Funds. Following a feasibility study, we pulled together a £12.1m application seeking £6.1m from the fund. 

Following extensive discussions and significant work developing a working financial modeling tool, we embarked on developing the District Heating network at Queens Quay.

The landowners convinced us their development partner could manage the build-out of a shell building. We tendered and secured Vital Energi to assist us in fitting out and running the pipework. 

Through Vital, we engaged with Star Refrigeration to build two 2.6MW heat pumps. We called the twins to aim for a 75-80 degrees Celsius system using ammonia as a refrigerant. 

A showcase building close to the river

Building close to the river at the basin, the pride of place on the site required us to look at the building design and its essential function. 

Our planning service was determined not to build a large, non-descript grey box at the basin. The Council and our designers/architects worked together to deliver something special: a glass-fronted tower with a mirror section framed by a bronzed cladding and incorporating a large 30m ‘golden’ flue tower. 

Our investment partners and the Council wanted a ‘showcase’ demonstration project, and we believe we have achieved this with our fantastic-looking building. But it added to the build cost.

The rest of the Queens Quay site was under development with roads and broader infrastructure, so installing the 5km pipework was incorporated into these more comprehensive works. We had some delays as works were not initially planned in parallel. However, it was a cleared site with minor obstructions to allow the digging and installation of pipework to progress rapidly.

£20m in a large public purse 

Another key aspect of delivering a network was gaining access to the basin and constructing a large extraction chamber below a publicly accessible basin pathway. Our landowner partners sold us the access rights across their land to the river and constructed the pump and filter extraction chamber on our behalf. 

The chamber’s extent and the access cost required additional funding from the Council, which we secured. Importantly, we had to ensure our financial modeling could recover these costs over the project’s lifetime and forecast income from customers that was realistic and achievable over 40 years. 

The building and infrastructure have cost the public purse close to £20m, significantly over our planned budget. However, we have a fantastic quality facility at our basin of Queens Quay.

The modeling required us to consider a range of customers, from commercial businesses to public partners such as the National Health Service (NHS), the college, and social housing. 

Convincing customers not to use cheap gas

Our early ambition was to contribute towards reducing fuel poverty amongst many of our citizens. One of the key challenges we face is convincing customers that the carbon-burning gas that only costs approximately 2 pence per kWh in the UK is not sustainable. The alternative electricity cost is about 14-15 pence per kWh, and our electrical network is becoming ever less carbon-reliant with significant wind provision across Scotland. 

The modeled price point to deliver our heat cannot match the gas process. However, through education and legislation, we see this changing. Scottish Government has introduced legislation that from 2025, no newly built homes will have a gas-burning boiler heating system. Alternatives are currently more expensive, but our water-sourced energy centre will be very competitive in terms of price in 2025. We just have some convincing to do!

Benefits in the Masterplan

One of the benefits of the master plan of the overall Queens Quay site was the balance of commercial facilities versus homes. The master plan envisages over 1,000 new homes across the area, and the District Heating system requires significant capacity built in to cope with this forecast demand. 

The energy centre has the capacity for additional heat pumps, additional backup gas boilers, and an additional 135,000-litre storage tank. This was particularly important as our ambitions stretch beyond the Queens Quay site towards the large Hospital complex of the Golden Jubilee Hospital, some 1.5km from the centre, with which we are progressing well. 

We also installed pipework in the ground that stretches across the main road from Queens Quay into Clydebank, where a business park and shopping centre could be future customers.

The system was commissioned and operating in October 2020.

At a visit to Titan Enterprise, a Council-owned multi-occupancy office just before Christmas, I enquired how the staff experienced their new heat being provided from the Energy centre? I got a surprise answer, but maybe it should not have been. The answer was, ‘What new heat’? They experienced no difference, just a nice warm building with low carbon generated heat rather than the gas-burning boiler systems previously.

A long and winding road – leading to a real showcase 

The journey has been long and not without its challenges. We are pursuing new customers and constantly checking our financial model stacks up. We believe having the UK’s largest water-sourced District Heating network will provide a real showcase for others. 

And importantly, it will provide heating across a large part of the estate and contribute to addressing a ‘fuel poverty situation that, as a public body, we must do everything we can to change.

With a bit of help from our Danish friends

The journey has only just started, and with tremendous mentoring support from our Danish friends, we believe this is just the start and look forward to delivering hot water to heat the businesses and homes of the future.

For further information, please contact Michael McGuinness, michael.mcguinness@west-dunbarton.gov.uk

Meet the author

Michael McGuinness
Economic Development Manager, West Dunbartonshire Council
Scottish venture into water-sourced District Heating at scale But what about District Heating?” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 1/2021. You can download the article here:
Scottish venture into water-sourced District Heating at scale