Putting the customer first in district heating development

Ian Allan, Head of Research and Development for district and community heating specialist Switch2 Energy, explains the principles of designing and planning heat networks around the long-term needs of the customer.

Many district heating schemes of old have delivered a lukewarm service to their customers because the design focus has focused chiefly on the technical aspects and neglected the human ‘customer experience’ that is so critical to success.

Heat decarbonisation challenge

As the UK gets serious about tackling its huge heat decarbonisation challenge, district heating is achieving much greater focus. The government’s Clean Growth Strategy states that heat networks could achieve 17 to 24 percent of the UK’s heat demand, which is a huge leap from the current 2%.

To achieve such steep growth, customer service standards must rise to the top of the priority list. After all, it’s the residents who are paying for the heat network and relying on it long after project completion. Customer confidence in the sector is vital to stimulating future growth.

Customer consultation

It is critical that the customer is considered at all stages of the project, but particularly at the outset during the design process, where the customer experience will be shaped. As such, prospective and existing customers, together with members of the local community, should be among the stakeholders that are involved in design and development. It is vital to work closely at all stages with the eventual scheme operator.

Heat networks are long term investments, so it is important to design-in minimal operating and maintenance costs to ensure affordability for residents. It’s a fine balancing act to ensure smooth, efficient long-term operation, financial viability and high resident satisfaction, which requires a holistic approach to planning.

Best practice guidance

There is plenty of best practice to learn from.  The voluntary codes of practice by CIBSE and the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), and The Heat Trust, have  provided much needed guidance on successful heat network design and development. Switch2 Energy, together with other major district and community heating specialists, has helped to develop this guidance, which draws on vast practical experience, expert advice and best practice.

These resources must be consulted closely by developers, designers, subcontractors and anybody involved in planning heat networks. It is very important that the CIBSE/ADE Code of Practice and Heat Trust guidelines are included as a key requirement in specifications and briefs for design services, feasibility projects, construction and commissioning contracts, as well as operation and maintenance contracts and energy services contracts.

The CIBSE Code recommends regular monitoring against its standards. This should include  assessing compliance with minimum standards at the end of each project stage.

Whether you appoint a single specialist project partner, who can deliver a joined-up approach to development, or work with various suppliers, a system of supplier certification should be established. Careful screening and due dilligence are, of course, critical.

Finance

There is increasing government support and funding for heat networks, which should be considered at the planning stage. This could influence fuel selection or design. Whole life costing should be used to measure and compare projects using the government model outlined in the Treasury’s Green Book.

Metering and billing

The introduction of The Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations makes it even more important to consider metering and billing at the earliest stages of the design and planning process. Make sure your scheme is compliant.

Achieving the fine balance between financial viability and fair pricing is incredibly difficult, but Modern prepayment/pay-as-you-go smart metering technologies can help reduce debt risk and improve cashflow. In most cases it is difficult to retrofit  this smart metering technology to tackle rent arrears, so it must be considered during the project planning stages.

Transparency and fairness in pricing is critical. The Heat Trust scheme rules include an obligation to provide residents with information showing how pricing compares to typical conventional heating supplies. Owners must, therefore, be sure cost forecasting is robust and that their charges will survive such scrutiny.

Defining roles

District heating projects are complex engineering and construction projects, so clear responsibilities must be assigned for all project stages – from design and development and operation to maintenance. This will help ensure that the customer’s needs are fully considered.

Don’t forget ….

Don’t overlook the important post-construction necessities, such as educating end-users and staff in how to use the heating and smart metering systems.

The UK’s district heating sector is transforming and maturing and there is plenty of good practice to learn from. By careful planning and taking a long-term, customer focused view, a new generation of efficient, low carbon, affordable heat networks will emerge and set the example for others to follow.

Further information:  www.switch2.co.uk    0330 053 5599