The need to change how we heat our homes has been put into overdrive with the invasion of Ukraine and the following energy and natural gas crisis. This urgent need to get rid of the now expensive fossil fuels only adds to the long list of other reasons: climate change, energy poverty, and air pollution. But how should the energy planner in charge of the switch from individual boilers to collective district heating systems approach this enormous task? The most used approach is to make a plan. The plan is a document that outlines different technical, economic, and environmental benefits and consequences. In this article, I try to sketch out the role of this district heating plan and why it might be different than commonly understood.
By Nis Bertelsen, the Danish Climate Council
Out with gas and prepare for a low-carbon heat system
There is a pressing need to change how we heat our homes around Europe and the world. A new urgency has arrived with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy price crisis. Natural gas, oil, coal, wood pellets, and most other combustible fuels are now expensive and scarce resources. The price of natural gas, the single most used fuel for heat supply, is now at a point that threatens to either bankrupt families or force them to freeze during winter.
This should be seen in combination with the challenges the energy and heating sector has been struggling with for years. Climate change is probably the single largest threat to our society, but it is also a long-term and a not so tangible challenge to face. Air pollution is a significant threat to the health and well-being in some countries. The biodiversity crisis puts new perspectives on the sustainability of using biomass for heat supply. Energy poverty has long been a subject in some countries, while in others, for example, Denmark, it is a new challenge that a portion of the population struggle with paying their energy bills.
There are many reasons to switch from old dirty boilers to clean heating. In dense urban areas, district heating has the potential to solve many of the challenges mentioned above. By switching from individual heat supply in single buildings to collective heating, it becomes possible to exploit hard-to-reach but readily available heat resources: excess heat from industry, data centers or power plans, geothermal resources, large-scale heat pumps, or large-scale solar thermal. I am sure this is known to many of the readers of this magazine – so how to actually implement these large-scale infrastructures?
Heat supply is intertwined with many other agendas
I can name many good reasons why district heating could be an option for heat supply in the future. But “the many actors out there” must make the decisions: municipalities, citizens, energy companies, utilities, industries with excess heat, etc. One question they all will ask is “what’s in it for me?”
The answer can be many different things: cheap heat and clean air for the citizens, clean heat supply in the municipality, extra income for an excess heat supplier, jobs, and investments in the area. These reasons are multiple, context-dependent, and always up for negotiation. Just look at how fast the discourse around fossil fuels, especially natural gas, changed from last year to today: last year, the need for getting rid of fossil fuels was based on climate change, and today it is a question of security of supply. Suddenly heat supply is a matter of national security, followed by new challenges and opportunities.
Therefore, there is not just one good reason to build district heating systems: it depends on the many local conditions and actors. And the planner who wishes to implement district heating must consider and depart from these specific conditions. But the planner must also make the different ends meet because district heating is one single infrastructure, and there needs to be agreement about the use, investment, and benefits of district heating among the many users and producers.
The district heating plan can create a shared understanding of a complicated topic.
How can these many different actors then agree on investing in a single large and collective system? The usual response by engineers and energy planners is to make a plan. A plan that forecasts future developments, how the district heating system would operate under certain conditions, compares it to other types of supply and highlights different benefits. These benefits will usually include the various reasons why a district heating system should be built: If the climate is a major driver, then CO2 emissions could be a good indicator. If energy poverty is in focus, then heat prices and savings might be more important.
The plan allows the different actors to discuss and try to see themselves in this potential future and to argue about what they like and do not like. In this perspective, a plan is not “”a traditional cookbook recipe for “how to make district heating”; instead, it is a vehicle to promote discussions around a framed topic. This can create engagement, focus, and trust. The plan will not magically materialize its conclusions in the real world, but it can develop common understandings and creative dialogue.
How to make a plan?
And now to the 1000€ question: how to make a successful plan for district heating supply? In my research I found three elements that are part of a good plan for district heating supply. The first two elements are recommendations for the municipalities, utility companies, and local actors who deal with the specific implementation. The last is a recommendation for state-level actors responsible for the regulatory framework that shapes heat planning activities.
- First, a plan depends upon the local context. It depends upon all the different local conditions that must be considered. Plans should highlight these considerations, show how different actors can be part of the plan, and highlight the specific elements that drive the project. They do not need to be specifically district heating plans, but district heating can be one potential supply among other types, such as individual heat pumps. This way, each municipality, and local government will look into and explore which different options exist and which options make sense for their specific conditions.
- Second, the plan is a tool for dialogue. Use the plan to find out which actors can see themselves in the potential new heat supply and which cannot. Most will need to make compromises, and perhaps some – fossil fuel interests – will need to be excluded. The results will be different from the first draft plan, but if there is agreement about the purpose, conditions, and targets, then most likely, the result will still be within a reasonable target.
- Third, transparency and agreement about the fundamental parts of a plan are necessary. It is important there is agreement about calculation methods and assumptions, price forecast and technology development. If no agreement has been reached, there is a risk that the whole process will discuss assumptions and not results. In Denmark, we have public authorities who publish technology price catalogs and energy price forecasts. They might not always be correct, but at least there is a common reference point.
Last, it is important to remember that results of working with a plan are emergent from the process and not given beforehand. As Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously sang: “You can’t always get what you want – But if you try sometimes, well, you might find – You get what you need”. My advice is, therefore, to get out there and start planning and involving stakeholders. And do not be too afraid to make mistakes because they will come. But with the current challenges facing heat supply around Europe, we need to try to change how we provide heat for our homes.
Why is this article interesting?
There is an urgent need to change our heat supply systems, and district heating is part of the solutions. This article provides a new perspective on what the purpose of the district heating plan is and how to think about the implementation process.
Who will benefit from reading it?
Professionals working with new or expanding district heating systems. Whether they work on a state level making the right framework conditions or on the ground with implementation, this article provides a new look at the technical and economic plans and how they can bring different actors together.
What is the article about?
The article is about the many different actors and their reasons, who have to come together to invest and build district heating systems. These many actors with different starting points have to work together and agree on how the district heating system should be built. Often a technical and economic plan is made, and this article discuss the role of this plan.