Carbon conquest: Renewable heat networks

Welcome Energy explore the unique Heating Swaffham Prior project and several other heating schemes that are pursuing lower carbon in 2020.


11 August 2020

Cambridge Carbon

Despite the setback of coronavirus, sustainability and the transition to a green economy are still progressing swiftly in 2020. District heat networks are no exception to this rule, with hopes to scale low-carbon networks to heat entire UK cities.

The Heating Swaffham Prior project is an example of this trend and while it is small in scale, the precedent it will set for UK heating is huge.

Swaffham Prior is a small village in east Cambridgeshire composed of some 300 households, 166 of whom have stated a desire to join the renewable heat network.

The plan is to retrofit these homes with clean heating technology fed by a ground source heat pump, thereby freeing them from carbon-intensive boiler technology.

A £2m grant awarded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial strategy (BEIS), made the project possible.

Announced back in July, it will be the first village in the UK to obtain heating entirely from renewable sources.

Heating buildings accounted for more than a third of the UK’s carbon emissions last year and despite incentives like the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), less than 5% of heating for homes and buildings comes from renewable sources.

The larger village

Projects like Swaffham Prior are not unique either, just this year several similar schemes announced net zero ambitions in northern Europe alone.

The Värtaverket power plant, based in Stockholm, produces 2,598GWh of heat, 526GWh of electricity and 304GWh of cooling per year. Earlier this year it closed its last gas-fired boiler and is now exploring integration of a novel carbon-capture system.

If the system proves viable, it could make Värtaverket the first carbon-negative district heating scheme in the world.

Following this example, District Heating Funen in Denmark announced plans in June to phase out all coal use by 2022. The transition would cut approximately 375,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, reducing national emissions by 1%.

A single percent point may sound negligible but it works out equivalent to replacing 200,000 cars with electric vehicles.

mountain top viewed above the clouds

Heating the UK

Currently, natural gas fuelling 85% of UK homes presents a significant obstacle to the country’s net zero targets. Projects like Swaffham Prior, as well as Hydrogen becoming a more prominent fuel source, offer a viable, low-carbon alternative.

The drive to net zero has been defined by mounds of public funding to support costs and attract private investment. February saw the announcement of district heating schemes in four major cities, backed by £40m in funding as part of the government’s Heat Networks Investment Project.

The four cities benefiting from the new scheme are Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, and London, with 30,000 homes taking part. The scheme will reduce carbon emissions about 150,000 tonnes over the next 15 years.

“Heat networks will be a crucial part of our commitment to eliminate the UK’s contribution to climate change by 2050. I’m delighted we’re funding more heat networks all over the country and ensuring better consumer protections for those who use them.”

Andrea Leadsom, Business and Energy Secretary

As heat networks multiply, especially those based on renewable sources, robust billing and metering will become vital. Older sites may require retrofitting or the resolution of past bills, as well as assured regulatory compliance going forward.

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