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Clean district heating is like public transportation

Timo Piispa 19 August 2019, 16:33 EEST

Why is district heating the most sustainable and effortless way to provide heating in urban areas.

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Public transportation has many advantages compared to private motoring: resources are used more wisely and emissions remain smaller. Moreover, overall optimisation is much easier, e.g. from the perspective of traffic congestion, as there are fewer moving units and their timetables are known. From the individual’s perspective, it’s an easy, reliable and ecological transportation solution.

The district heating system can very well be compared to urban public transportation. Water that is heated in the district heating network circulates in underground pipes and warms buildings and the domestic hot water used in them. As a centralised solution it can use the resources in a more optimum way by using the shared infrastructure and utilising recycled waste heat energy from different kind of sources. Customers don’t have to worry about it.

Also district heating will become carbon neutral

Up to now, the heating has been done with fossil fuels, but a rapid transformation is currently underway in Finland: district heating systems are being converted to become carbon neutral. For example, the solutions we are pursuing in the city of Espoo are not based on combustion, but on waste heat, geothermal, and electricity. With the increase in the number of electric heat pumps, the opportunities for ecological district cooling also increase.

It has been very pleasing to see that the Programme of the Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s Finnish Government mentions transferring the heat pumps generating heat for the district heating network to the electricity tax category used by the industry. From the perspective of investments replacing fossil-based production, it would be important for this tax reform to become effective immediately as of the beginning of next year.

Why is district heating a better alternative than building-specific solutions?

In Finland, many residential areas and new constructions are currently contemplating the future’s most sustainable solution for heating. Eco-friendly heating is also an advantage when selling residential units. At the moment, a variety of building-specific solutions based on carbon-neutral electricity are available. However, these solutions are kind of like private cars. The overall system they form is not as efficient or as climate-friendly as a centralised solution: public transportation or district heating.

What’s more, without district heating networks our electricity system would be burdened. We have calculated that during extreme low temperatures in Finland, the required amount of electricity generation capacity would be 1.5 times higher without the district heating system. The Finnish energy system couldn’t handle that without significant additional investments. The district heating system is already scaled for extreme low temperatures, but building-specific systems typically are not scaled for extreme low temperatures; instead, a sufficient temperature is achieved by supplementing with direct electric heating. This puts an added load on the electricity system.

Artificial intelligence will make district heating an even better solution

A carbon-neutral district heating system controlled by artificial intelligence is capable of an energy efficiency that isn’t possible with building-specific solutions. For example, as wind power increases, a district heating system can store surplus electricity as heat and use it for district heating when the wind isn’t blowing. An artificial intelligence-controlled district heating system can reduce energy consumption in areas where it isn’t needed at that particular time. A district heating system also helps with security of supply – the network stays warm also during long power outages.

In fact, wouldn’t it make sense to also integrate building-specific systems into the district heating network? For example, a high-capacity heat pump solution could sell any surplus heat that the building doesn’t need to the district heating network. In the future we will see more and more of these kinds of district heating and building-specific heating combinations, i.e. hybrid solutions. 

District heating is an outstanding solution for the customer looking for convenience: a small initial investment for the housing company and low-maintenance technology. In the future, residents will have better control of the conditions in their own units: cooling and warming them to their own comfort level.

A district heating network is part of the Nordic infrastructure that is currently the envy of the rest of Europe. District heating is the choice for urban residents who are eco-conscious and responsible. Now and in the future.

Carbon-neutral district heating to Espoo in the 2020's

Timo Piispa

VP, Heating and Cooling Finland
timo [dot] piispa [at] fortum [dot] com

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