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27/02/2020

Planning should play a greater role in creating district heat networks

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Heating our homes has been a grey area for town planners, says John Kennedy.

Heating our homes has been a grey area for town planners. The preparation of the local development plan is often at arm’s length from what happens on gas or electricity grids.

But the energy landscape is changing. Big on the climate agenda is decarbonising heat supply for homes and businesses. Chief among the solutions is district heating: a ‘low-regrets’ infrastructural necessity as we sift through the range of heat sources available, like biomass or waste heat – that is to say, the network itself can be built before committing to a specific heat source.

The spatial nature of heat networks determines that the planning system will own the problem of distributing the UK’s future low and zero-carbon heat supply.

It seems we have an addiction to the gas boiler, as only 1 per cent of Scottish homes are fed by heat networks (in Denmark it’s 65 per cent). The Scottish Government is addressing this through pilots of the Local Heating and Energy Efficiency Strategy (LHEES) that oblige local authorities to produce a heat strategy comprised of two parts: the development of ‘zones’; and a regulated approach to socio-economic assessments on each heat network project.  

Zoning and project assessment. Sound familiar? There are significant parallels between the zoning process for heating and developing a local plan, while socio-economic assessments are akin to development planning. The decarbonisation of heat supply should be a planning issue.

“Planners will own the problem of distributing the UK’s low and zero-carbon heat supply”

Commercial viability of heat networks requires two things: a guarantee of long-term demand to ensure a return of investment and a minimisation of capital costs. Planners have a central role in addressing this through the local plan, such as the colocation of industries producing waste heat with areas of high heat demand.

Our training has always told us to avoid this colocation. But breweries, factories and watercourses produce excess heat, and that waste heat can be funnelled into our homes. LHEES recommends socio-economic assessments for district heating project applications, a process well set up for development management planners. This is because the assessment is largely a demographic analysis exercise. The complexity of local energy planning requires a pooling of resources and well-collated local knowledge, data for which the local authority is the custodian.

There are also shared objectives between LHEES and what we, as modern planners, are trying to achieve. Taking gas boilers out of homes will categorically improve air quality. Wasn’t our profession largely born out of addressing this issue

John Kennedy is a land consultant with WSP and a postgraduate in urban and regional planning

Image credit | iStock

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