Switching streets to low-carbon heat

Nesta’s Alasdair Hiscock, Andy Marsden, Kevin Wiley and Elin Price explain networked heat pumps and where they fit in the decarbonisation picture.

How might we enable the switch to low-carbon heat across streets and neighbourhoods?

Networked heat pumps offer a viable way to decarbonise large numbers of homes. But while interest in this solution is growing, further efforts are required to boost investor confidence for a national rollout. Several opportunities are clear such as strategic demonstrations, granting utility status to heat networks, coordinated planning frameworks and clear timelines on expected energy policy reforms. However, some opportunities could benefit from further innovation to achieve greater impact.

At Nesta, our sustainable future mission has been exploring methods for delivering this solution across the UK and have identified several barriers. We’ve been working with Kensa, who carried out the UK’s first in-road, networked heat pump installation as part of their Heat the Streets initiative. We’ve also engaged with other stakeholders in the sector and are currently looking for partners interested in helping to test and scale different approaches.

What are networked heat pumps and which homes are most suitable?

Networked heat pumps are low-temperature heat networks with shared infrastructure in the road and an individual ground-source heat pump in each home. They include 5th generation and shared ground loop networks. 

Properties most suitable for shared ground loop networks include terraced streets, tenements and other homes in medium-density areas where air source heat pump installations are potentially more restricted and where larger district heating schemes are not present.

What’s needed to make this happen at scale?

Delivering networked heat involves multiple challenges – from individual household decision-making to large-scale planning and policy. In our work, we’ve been looking at how these different factors impact the way we can deliver heat pump networks.

Three approaches to deliver these include: coordinated commitment, infrastructure-led and a hybrid model. 

Coordinated commitment

This approach involves multiple homes in a neighbourhood (at least 30) working together to get infrastructure installed in their street. Once the infrastructure is in place for the households that signed up for it, only a few other nearby homes – if any – might have the chance to connect in the future. 

These are often grassroots schemes within the community who provide initial leadership or local engagement and mediation. Local authorities could assist in outreach or leadership. Infrastructure developers or operators may require proof that there’s significant interest in the scheme before conducting a feasibility study. 

Infrastructure-led

In this model, infrastructure is installed into streets in anticipation of demand from homes, much like broadband services, with households able to connect a heat pump at their convenience. Early adopters may be incentivised to connect their homes, but little initial interest is required. Unlike other schemes, feasibility studies precede any significant outreach. Various factors can help to indicate the number and rate of likely connections, such as density, type of homes, housing tenures and estimated impact of running costs for households.

Hybrid

This model only needs a small number of homes to commit at the start, which can be facilitated by a single property owner – such as landlords, housing associations, or local authorities – making a significant investment or guaranteeing the initial work. These homes serve as ‘anchor tenants’, enabling an initial amount of infrastructure to be built, to which several additional homes may also connect at their own pace. Feasibility studies would highlight areas of suitable housing density which have sufficient groupings of properties owned by landlords.

The prevalence of these three delivery methods may vary over time with the most prominent likely moving from coordinated commitment to hybrid to infrastructure-led

Across either delivery approach, it’s likely that costs associated with in-ground works will be applied onto a standing charge for households, while costs for the heat pump installation will be applied separately.

What are the opportunities to deliver at scale and how to get involved:

Our work on networked heat pumps is in its early stages and, by mapping different delivery approaches, we have identified some common challenges.

Nesta is seeking to work with partners to develop and test novel methods to solve these problems. A few opportunities are:

  • Optimising demonstrations to boost investor confidence across different community profiles;
  • More effective communication to households both individually and at scale;
  • Increasing visibility of suitable homes with accurate and efficient identification;
  • Improving householder clarity on suitable low-carbon heat options (time- and location-specific);
  • Establishing consumer trust in the technology, ownership format and delivery model;
  • And the typical concerns on expanding financing options and reducing disruption but within a place-based context.

We recognise the hard work by others to progress place-based delivery broadly and hope to amplify your insights alongside new learnings in order to build confidence and develop the foundations for sustainable delivery models. 

To get involved with our work, please contact alasdair.hiscock@nesta.org.uk