Innovation extends district heating

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Over half the world’s population live in cities and this figure will rise to 60% in the next 20 years, putting increasing pressure on buildings in terms of their resource and energy consumption. So goes the background to a report, Heating for the Future: Identifying Global Hotspots for District Energy, from US-based Lux Research. This suggests that the emergence of new technologies and fuels are about to enhance the position of the decades-old district heating (DH) sector across the globe.

Starting with the introduction of air conditioning in 1902, the rest of the twentieth century saw the evolution of systems which service buildings to provide occupant comfort, with advances made to reliability and reduced energy consumption. Lux now suggests that advanced district energy technologies, coupled with a range of alternative fuels, will increase the viability of DH in its traditionally strong locations such as the Northeastern US, Central and Eastern Europe, Japan and South Korea.

And, while natural gas-fuelled DH systems usually provide the biggest economic wins compared to conventional ‘distributed heating’, biomass and waste-to-energy schemes also work, and all three work best in comparison to naturally expensive alternatives such as electric heating and fuel oil. Moreover, the most promising prospects for Asia are newer technologies – ground source heat pumps, biomass and solar thermal systems, says Lux.

Recent real-world examples illustrate some of the innovation currently transforming the once highly-traditional DH sector into the foundation for locally-based, low carbon energy supply systems – and not just in traditional localities.

For example, in New Zealand, Christchurch City Council has contracted with Cofely-GDF SUEZ to build the country’s first large-scale DH system, with some of heat supplied from ground source heat pumps. Meanwhile, a company established by Enfield Council in North London, UK, operates a new DH system for public housing schemes, which is fed with hot water generated in a waste-to-energy facility operated by the local waste authority. Households produce waste, some of which is reused to generate heating. Finally, officials from Montpelier, capital of Vermont in the US, have been sharing their experience of operating a biomass-fuelled district heating system with those from Alaska’s capital city, Juneau, where a new DH system will start-up this autumn. Far from shipping-in fuel oil, Juneau will make use of locally-produced biomass from its extensive forests.

The DH industry is now one of the most innovative and important components of low carbon energy supplies.

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