Building Better Heating

Head of Policy & Research Dr Craig Dalzell comments on recent attempts to present plans to decarbonise Scotland – particularly our heating sector. He notes that if we do this simply by leaving things to the private market then we might end up with a decarbonised heating sector, but it might end up delivering worse outcomes both in terms of quality of life and in terms of overall cost. Instead, he argues, we need to see more government intervention and a longer term view to create a future that puts All of Us First.

I noted two articles on decarbonising in the Herald last week. The first, published on the 6th of February, was on transitioning away from oil and gas with a particular note that while many agree it has to happen, few have discussed proposals on reducing demand. The second was published on the 7th of February discussed a plan put forward by Scottish Power which, in part, aimed to help Glasgow decarbonise its heating sector by replacing everyone’s gas boiler with an air source heat pump.

Common Weal has researched this area extensively as part of Our Common Home our blueprint for a Green New Deal for Scotland covering not just heating but every other carbon-emitting sector in Scotland as well.

I agree that the “heat pump future” is one method of decarbonising our heating sector but I fear that it is a sub-optimal strategy particularly since the specific proposal put forward in the article does not appear to mention any improvements to home insulation. Even with day-to-day storage of heat in water tanks or similar in the home, this is likely to lead to an increase in heating bills for consumers.

The principle advantage of heat pumps is that they can be installed without much in the way of infrastructure spending and are thus ideal for a private market looking to turn gas customers into electricity customers especially if we don’t couple this solution with extensive retrofitting and insulation projects on our homes. While it would be unfair to say that heat pumps don’t work at all in the winter, it is true to say that they work least efficiently when they are most needed when it is cold outside.

We want to decarbonise our heating sector in a way that really takes advantage of what Scotland can do. A country which once led the way in terms of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is more than capable to realising the big ideas we need to get through the climate emergency and the challenges facing us in the 21st century.
Our research found that for much of Scotland, we could deliver the best possible outcome of decarbonised heating and a reduction in fuel poverty using a solution that is almost unknown in the UK but has been commonplace throughout parts of Europe for almost a century District Heating Systems (DHS).


A schematic of a district heating system



In a DHS we don’t deliver fuel for heating our homes (coal, gas or electricity) but deliver the heat itself through a network of steam pipes. A heat exchanger in your house replaces your boiler and temperature in your house is controlled in much the same way as it is now. The heat can be generated by what ever heat source is best for the time and the location. If that means renewable electricity is the cheapest to use then fine but unlike heat pumps we could also take advantage of solar thermal power, hydrogen, geothermal energy, heat from abandoned coal mines, biomass, industrial waste heat or virtually any other source of heat. As new heating technologies come online, they can be plugged into the network without sending engineers round to every home to replace their systems. Rather than small heat stores in every home, large covered reservoirs can store heat for many months long enough that even sources like solar thermal energy in summer can provide heat in the winter when it’s needed.

The challenge and opportunity of this approach is that we don’t have very many district heating networks in Scotland so we’ll have to build them up. This will cost a fair amount enough that government investment will be needed but the upside is that that investment will create thousands of well paid jobs with a huge demand for everything from boiler engineers and pipe-layers to geothermal scientists and solar panel technicians. And if we form a public energy company to deliver these networks then the return on investment will flow back into the public purse rather than to private shareholders.

I don’t understate the scale of the challenge here. This is an infrastructure proposal that matches or exceeds the transition away from coal and town gas. But if done right, once these systems are in place they will provide a level of future-proofing unmatched by any other proposal. In terms of CO2 reduction, running costs and heat delivery, DHS networks outperform any other reasonable proposal including heat pumps or piped hydrogen.

A comparison of various heating technologies (Source here)

The climate emergency is upon us now and we need to move quickly to deploy the solutions to it but we should think now about the years and decades beyond this immediate crisis. If we take a longer term view then we can avoid spending a lot of money on piecemeal approaches that may need to be replaced again or may lock consumers into expensive or sub-optimal solutions.

Since Scotland is already behind schedule to meet its 2045 net-zero carbon target, we at Common Weal urge the Scottish Government and local authorities to adopt the Our Common Home roadmap and start doing the work that we urgently need to see if we’re going to create a future that is not only cleaner and more sustainable but is also more comfortable, has less fuel poverty and is simply better than the one we have today. Once we’ve reached that goal and everything is done, we’ll wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

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