With both the UK and Scottish Governments aiming to increase the number of homes connected to district heating, it is currently a hot topic in the energy world. District heating offers a more efficient type of heating system due to the economies of scale that can be achieved. This means that, in theory, it will produce less CO2 and provide lower household bills than equivalent types of heating such as electric storage. However the question on many people’s minds is: does it reduce household heating bills and CO2 emissions?

This is exactly what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) commissioned us to explore in our research project, District heating: Delivering affordable and sustainable energy. Along with the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) we’ve been looking at the impacts district and communal heating has had in social housing, and what barriers, challenges and successes landlords have faced in developing schemes. Our research has involved a survey of UK social landlords, stakeholder interviews, resident focus groups and case study work, including technical analysis.  

We’ve now completed the research and are pulling together findings and recommendations. So what are the initial findings telling us?

What’s not working

The findings highlight the sheer number of challenges landlords face when developing schemes such as:

  • Finding suitably qualified and experienced contractors
  • Putting in place appropriate billing regimes
  • Setting up maintenance plans
  • Sourcing finance
  • Engaging residents
  • Ensuring schemes are being run efficiently.

Unfortunately, these challenges have led to problems in some schemes such as over-heating, high heating bills or schemes running at a loss.

What’s working

District Heating BoilersHowever we also found that many residents living with district heating are happy with it: their homes are warm and bills affordable. Our energy modelling showed that, for the eight case studies, district heating is almost always predicted to produce lower CO2 emissions than other types of heating. And despite challenges faced by landlords, many now have successful schemes and are developing new projects. 

Shaping recommendations

We shared our initial research findings at a UK stakeholder workshop in London recently, involving social landlords, district heating industry representatives, Government and consumer bodies.

The workshop enabled us to refine our series of recommendations we’ll make available to social landlords and Government on the back of our research findings. These recommendations intend to help ensure that schemes have greater impact and are delivered more smoothly.  We shared recommendations at this early stage to help us ensure they are as useful and practical as possible.

Informing debate and delivery

It’s still unclear whether district heating provides sustainable and affordable energy, as the impact of any scheme depends on so many factors. Our research will provide findings for eight examples from across the UK as well as wider lessons and experiences from the sector. This will be invaluable for the district heating industry and social housing sector in understanding how schemes are being delivered and what can be improved in the future. Our full research findings and recommendations, will be published in our final report in early 2017.


Tessa Clark, Changeworks





Tessa Clark is Changeworks’ Senior Consultant