“We need to demystify the language around district heating”

A month into her role as MD at Vattenfall Heat UK, Jenny Curtis spoke to Lucy Dixon about the role of district heating in decarbonising heat.

Vattenfall Heat UK is already rolling out district heating in London, Bristol and Midlothian, and one of the main priorities of new MD Jenny Curtis, is to identify other cities to work with  –  to reach a total of between five and eight by 2030. Jenny explains: “Within my first year in post, we will be aiming to be onsite and rolling out those networks, getting more customers connected to our networks and receiving low carbon heat, but also be well on the way to identifying and forming partnerships with cities for that next tranche of core locations.”

So what makes a good location for a heat network? Urban areas are best suited, says Jenny, with “big anchor loads” really important to the business case.

“For example, we’re working at Brent Cross South in London, where our district heating network will provide low carbon heating and hot water to 6,700 new homes and three million square feet of new office, retail and commercial space, as part of the regeneration scheme. We’re installing an all-electric air source heat pump solution there, so that becomes an anchor for a network that over time we hope will grow across the region.”

There is also a need for certainty of demand over time, so the economic characteristics of an area are important, Jenny explains: “Is there a lot of new build planned where we can see that there will be demand? Our exposure to the real estate market is quite material, particularly in terms of delay, and we’re actually putting infrastructure in ahead of demand, so we are reliant on those developers to build out.”

Supportive councils

In addition, the ideal heat network location needs local authorities that are on board. “We need local authorities that will be supportive in terms of planning policy and access to sources of waste heat. Heat from energy from waste plants, for example, which can be political in terms of the appraisal of carbon, but currently we see that as waste heat that is going to the atmosphere, and where we don’t currently have a better solution for it than landfill, so we might as well use it while it’s there. That can provide really good value heat, which has got to be what we’re all looking to get ultimately.”

Another example Jenny gives of a close collaboration with a council is the Bristol City Leap project – which we covered in a seminar at InstallerSHOW 2023. It’s a game-changing approach towards decarbonisation at city-scale, with a 20-year plan to transform the city, with huge amounts of renewable energy to be installed on homes, businesses and public buildings, as well as the expansion of Bristol’s award-winning heat network. It’s a smaller network says Jenny, but the planning policy in the city gives organisations the drive to connect.

“I think Bristol was incredibly brave in setting its vision for how to decarbonise a city in an environment where public sector finances are no longer the go-to. And in recognising the value of private sector expertise in delivering that and in the need to do it at scale. We like to work in cities where we have local authorities that share our vision around a fossil-free future and we have a supportive policy environment. Bristol had all of that and by setting up a joint venture that’s got a very specific mission, but with the support of the local authority, really gives us all the tools we need in order to deliver over the long-term.”

Resident engagement

Bristol City Leap is also a masterclass in bringing the residents on the journey too, with engagement and education a crucial part of the project – and creating benefits of district heating beyond decarbonisation: the social value. Jenny says: “That level of community engagement is a really important part of the model as is the social value that we’ve committed to delivering as part of that contract – over £60m worth of social value in the first five years. That includes not only development of the local supply chain, but also things like working with ex-offenders, plus internships and apprenticeships and ensuring that we are providing best in class EDI training and practices.”

Vattenfall’s work with Midlothian Council in Scotland has a slightly different structure – a collaboration with the council called Midlothian Energy Limited Joint Venture –but also allows it to be a long-term investor in the infrastructure of the area and a real part of the community. Jenny says:

“There’s a strong skills and social value component to that project too. We’ve launched a programme called the District Heating Career Pathway Programme, where we’re working with all the primary schools and secondary schools in the council area, looking to engage up to a thousand young people in its first year to improve the awareness of district heating as a technology and all of the skills and employment opportunities that will come along as part of that.”

Awareness of district heating is growing, but outside of the heating industry there are still large knowledge gaps and projects like the one in Midlothian aim to tackle that. “When people ask me what I do, I find it quite difficult to explain because of the terminology – as an industry, I think we need to demystify the wording.” Jenny says the conversations around decarbonisation, in the media and beyond, often focus on heat pumps but rarely mention district heating, despite the fact the government’s policy is that 18% of communities will be on district heating by 2050.

“That’s one in five households and in big city areas it will be almost the entire city. Going back to my priorities for this year, the lobbying piece will be critical in terms of getting the industry to mature, to come together to create a narrative, to get the right language when talking within the industry, to our supply chain, to government, but also ultimately to consumers and customers to get them to understand the technology and to sell the benefits and bring people along for the ride.”