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folder Sustainability

Sustainability in the pipeline

Zisis Nikoloudis, segment manager – commercial, at Uponor, discusses how the industry can build sustainable district heating systems to help the Government meet its net zero targets

District heating networks are well suited to large, multi-occupancy buildings

The road to achieving the government’s net-zero carbon target is one the heating industry is going to play an important role in navigating. This stems from the fact that heating represents the single biggest source of household carbon emissions, with research in 2019 finding that the average home generates 2,745 kg of CO2 from heating alone.

The pressure the sector is under to make changes is highlighted by the Future Homes Standard. According to the standard, new homes should produce 75-80% less carbon emissions and no new homes should be connected to the gas grid by 2025. Instead, the UK’s housing stock needs to utilise low carbon heating solutions.

To help the sector move towards its goal, the Government has been putting in place incentives and policies including the Heat Network Investment Project and the Renewable Heat Incentive, which aim to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly heating solutions, such as district heating networks and renewable energy sources.  

The sustainable benefits of district heating

Research shows that replacing conventional heating with district heating networks, especially when connected to renewable energy sources, can significantly improve a building’s energy efficiency levels. However, despite these carbon-cutting benefits, only around 2% of the UK’s heat demand is currently supplied by such systems. This is a figure which the Committee on Climate Change has said needs to rise to at least 18% if the UK is to meet its carbon targets. 

In practice, district heating networks typically consist of a centralised energy centre that uses an underground network of pipes to supply heated water to a property. They are particularly useful for large, multi-occupancy buildings as well as suburban developments, as only one heat source is required to supply all the properties. 

Connecting a district heating network to a renewable energy source, such as air source heat pumps (ASHP) or ground source heat pumps (GSHP), and to combine them with highly insulated pipes makes it a very environmentally friendly option. This environmental benefit is thanks to the fact that it minimises energy losses and avoids the need for localised heat generation. Renewable technologies, such as GSHP, ASHP and solar thermal power, are highly efficient and on average last longer than conventional boilers, delivering lifecycle cost-savings. 

Using high performance, insulated pipes to carry water to and from the energy source can maximise a system’s efficiency further by reducing heat losses. In fact, innovations in this area mean that only the very smallest amount of heat is lost into the surrounding earth while transporting the water. 

The growth of district heating networks in urban areas, and in complex buildings where space is at a premium, has helped to drive the development of smaller, durable and more flexible pre-insulated pipes. These flexible pipes don’t need large trenches, can follow the contours of the land and can be installed to fit around corners and other obstacles. Additionally, by installing flexible pipes the number of connections required is reduced, minimising the possibility of leaks occurring and also further improving the efficiency of the system.

Combining district heating networks with heating solutions such as radiant heating systems, radiant panels and underfloor heating is also a great way to enhance a development’s energy efficiency, as systems such as these operate at lower temperatures compared to conventional heating methods. Incorporating smart energy management technology, such as smart heating controls, will also boost efficiency levels by ensuring that heat is only provided where and when it is required. 

An industry in hot water?

Revolutionising how we think about heating is not going to be an easy feat, and as stated earlier we’re still a long way off where we need to be. 

Making sure we’re using the most up-to-date, sustainable systems available is an important part of this revolution. By futureproofing the country’s heating networks we can make sure that these system’s not only meet today’s criteria, but that they’re also going to comply with rules in the future, which are only going to become stricter the closer we get to 2050. 

Fortunately, there are new innovations and ideas which will help the industry move in the right direction. The pipes used to send water to and from heating networks are just one example, as they are becoming both more efficient and more practical to install – dual benefits which will make it easier for the industry to build in a sustainable manner.

The industry does need to move quickly if it is going to be in with a chance of adapting itself to a better way of working with enough time to meet the looming environmental deadlines. This is why it’s all the more important to embrace innovations and new ideas now so that sustainable methods of heating homes and buildings move from being the alternative to the mainstream. 


8 April 2021


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