History of heating

Around half of Europe’s total energy consumption is from buildings. That is why heating options have such a great impact on total energy consumption. Many countries have chosen similar ways of supplying buildings with affordable and environmentally sustainable energy through heat networks. Now this option is starting to become a reality in the UK.

A closer look at the UK and Sweden

During the 1940s many European countries such as Denmark, Germany, Poland and Sweden started to develop centrally produced heat, meaning heat that is distributed by pipes transporting hot water into people’s homes through radiators. Heat was mainly generated in large plants burning oil to heat the water. This way of centrally produced heat distributed to end customers is what today is called heat networks or sometimes, district heating.

From firewood to gas grid

Before World War II, most homes were heated by an open fire place or stove in every room, burning coal, coke or firewood. When central heating was introduced, the entire energy production became more efficient and the black smog from burning coal was reduced significantly.

However the UK has long been and still is known for its smog. The coal and firewood stoves were replaced with gas grids. Outside the UK, heat production was centralised via water pipe networks instead. This resulted in much better air quality than for example in London.

Battersea Power Station was built

After World War II, demand for electricity in the UK increased as industry grew. To supply London with electricity, Battersea Power Station was built and became the largest power plant in the world at that time. The power station required a lot of cooling and initially the condensation process was cooled by water from the Thames. As a result the Pimlico heat network was constructed to get rid of the waste heat produced in the power plant. This network still supplies heating to parts of Pimlico and Whitehall.

In Sweden, the first heat network was also built to utilise surplus heat from a power plant. Soon cities in Finland, Germany, Sweden and the majority of Central Europe realised the benefits of providing their inhabitants and businesses with heat distributed by heat networks. During the 1950s and 60s the expansion of heat networks took off. The main fuel used to heat the water in the pipes were still cheap and abundant, such as oil and coal.

Major crisis

After the oil crisis of 1973, Sweden decided to phase out the use of oil for heating. District networks and nuclear power for heating were greatly expanded. In less than 20 years, more than 80 percent of oil use for heating was replaced with biofuels. The almost complete phase-out of oil was made possible because of the earlier built heat networks and later also through heat pumps.

During the 80s many countries expanded their waste burning activity, particularly Sweden. Accumulated waste releases methane gas which affects the greenhouse effect twenty times more than CO2. By separating waste products it is now possible to burn most of it and thereby several benefits at once; lower levels of methane, higher levels of recycled waste and environmentally friendly heating for society.

Heat networks today

Heat networks in Sweden are now virtually fossil fuel free, utilising waste heat from industry as well as data centres. By comparison, Poland and the UK are considerably dependent on coal fired heat pumps and gas boilers. Poland has an infrastructure for district heating which creates opportunity to switch and intensify sustainable energy production. This is not the case in the UK where it is much harder to increase effectiveness of gas boilers. Expensive gas also has to be imported. Simultaneously, the UK exports some of its waste at a high cost while cooling down waste heat. This adds to an already inefficient heating system which as the UK government is recognising, is now ripe for change.

One of the first steps towards this was the setting up of the Heat Networks Delivery Unit (HNDU), originally within the Department for Energy and Climate Change and now sited in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

More information:

Sweden is at the forefront of decentralised heat networks technology. Our aim for  “Heat Networks – Sustainability by Sweden” is to facilitate knowledge sharing between British and Swedish stakeholders and develop and encourage environmental and economic best practice.

To find out how we can help you and your organisation,  please  contact our London-based “Heat Networks” team. We can introduce you to leading consultants, suppliers of technology and services who will be pleased to share know-how of the development of heat network solutions.


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