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District heating is making a comeback! These heating systems are winning support from the Government, landlords and planners alike as we look for energy-efficient alternatives to conventional heating systems. Casey Cole, Managing Director at Guru Systems, explains how modern-day technology is helping to reignite enthusiasm for district heat.

District heat is enjoying a renaissance.

Having been all but confined to history after the demise of the ‘streets in the sky’ building programme of the 60s and 70s, many are now turning to modern day district heat networks as a long-term solution to providing low-carbon energy to our housing stock.

It is more than 50 years since the concept was first introduced in the UK, and the mistakes of the past have been well documented.

Today, however, the landscape couldn’t be more different.

New technology, with the support of Government financing, means that district heat is now a reliable source of energy that is increasingly easy to monitor and manage.  

The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates that 14% of UK heat demand could be cost effectively met by heat networks by 2030, with the figure rising to 43% by 2050. While in the capital, the Mayor of London has set out plans for 25 per cent of heat and power used in London to be generated through the use of localised decentralised energy systems by 2025.

Planners are similarly championing its use in new housing developments, particularly in London, as they promote an “eco-first” approach to planning permission.  

Robin Feeley, Director of L&Q Energy, which manages 2,000 homes on 33 district heat networks across London and the south east, said: “In London in particular, district heat is no longer a choice, it is a necessity and as developers, housing association are having to adapt and fast.

“The technology developed to monitor these networks has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and in many ways housing associations are leading the way in implementing these advancements and pioneering new technology, including smart meters.”

The 21st century district heat schemes benefits have been widely publicised, as energy is distributed from a central hub, rather than from boilers in individual properties, heat networks are more energy efficient than conventional heating systems and allow landlords to supply low cost heat to their tenants.

The challenges

Heat networks are notoriously difficult to administer, especially as landlords are not allowed to make a profit from the energy they sell to their tenants. If they charge too much they face legal challenges, if they charge too little they could lose money every time a tenant turns on their heating.

In most cases landlords will set tariffs based on the expected performance of the system – not on real world data that shows how well the network is actually working. This means that if initial assumptions are inaccurate, or there is a sudden dip in efficiency through a fault in the network, costs for landlord could spiral rapidly.

At Guru, we have seen cases of a 100-home scheme losing £65k in 14 months, simply because their tariff had assumed a much better efficiency than was achieved in practice.

The landlord billed their residents every month according to aggregate consumption, but they had not had access to performance data and so did not know their tariff was wrong.

The technology

With landlords having to take on the unfamiliar role of energy provider – and facing a raft of technical and legal ramifications – housing professionals are mixing traditional ideas with new technology to bring district heat into the modern age.

Robin Feeley continues: “We spent five years refining our district heat networks to the point where we have a produced a technical specification for our networks. At first, like I am sure many housing associations were, we relied heavily on contractors to specify what we needed.

“Since first installing district heat networks, technology has transformed the way we deliver and monitor the energy we provide to our tenants, to such an extent that we are now revisiting earlier developments to install smart meters where previously we had old-fashioned prepayment meters.”

The majority of landlords have no way of knowing how well their networks are running as the data is collected monthly, rather than being logged minute-by-minute. While many recognise the need to provide cost-effective heating to their residents, the majority have no way of reviewing efficiencies on their networks.

Although older heat meters provide essential data, most of it remains unused due to antiquated data collection systems. Some operators of district heat networks rely on customers to provide readings or send an operative with a radio receiver to collect readings from each meter, while others are using the 20-year-old technology to transmit data on usage from individual homes.

These basic methods mean that if landlords are calculating their tariffs incorrectly or networks are not running efficiently, they can suffer huge financial losses in the months between meter readings.

Today housing associations can monitor key information on how the network is performing – from the central plant right through to each individual’s home – meaning landlords can quickly identify any issues in the network long before costs mount up.

By delivering real-time information on energy usage and payments, smart meters allow registered providers to identify and focus resources on vulnerable residents who are in fuel poverty and in immediate need of support.

The technology to manage and monitor heat networks is constantly advancing. Guru Systems recently won funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to develop an algorithm to evaluate the efficiency of schemes.

Using innovative algorithms that build on techniques developed for Big Data applications, the technology will be able to recognise patterns in performance data and identify the likely source of any inefficiency on networks.

As well as identifying the problem, the new system will also propose solutions ranked by cost-effectiveness, while machine learning will ensure the algorithm’s accuracy continues to improve the more data it analyses.

Guru Systems has seen its technology installed on 35 schemes across the UK for landlords including, L&Q, Affinity Sutton, Octavia Housing, and Peabody Trust, and private developers, such as Berkeley and Telford Homes.

Casey Cole is Managing Director of Guru Systems, which provides smart payment and energy-efficiency technology systems for local energy networks 


 

This feature was originally published in the April edition of Housing Association and Building Maintenance Magazine. To read more great articles, visit www.habmonline.co.uk

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