Taking a Community Approach to Low Carbon Heat


Written by Kate Hutchinson, Senior Consultant, Reheat

In the UK, buildings account for around 30% of our overall emissions, with the vast majority of this is a result of heat. Recent figures show that heat from our homes contributes 17%[1], representing a large proportion of our emissions which we need to address in a wider bid to achieve Net Zero. In light of global events, almost all of us have faced challenges in domestic heating as a result of fossil fuel volatility, so there’s never been a better time to rethink approaches to heat generation, supply, sustainability and ownership.

Community heat is one such path we can take.

In my experience, community heat is perhaps less well known about in the context of community energy, but it has huge potential in supporting the UK’s transition to low and zero carbon energy, providing multiple benefits to communities along the way.

So, what do we mean by ‘community heat’ relative to ‘community energy’? The vast majority of community energy projects are focused on generating renewable electricity with technologies such as solar PV, wind turbines or hydro. Sometimes the communities involved benefit directly from the low carbon electricity but more often they benefit from the income generated. With community heat projects, the communities usually benefit directly from the heat generated.

Low carbon heat can be generated in several different ways, such as Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP), Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) and biomass based on sustainable, locally sourced fuel. Community heat projects can take many different forms, ranging from a community level approach to planning and procuring individual household ASHPs or a heat network where there is a centralised energy plant delivering hot water to each house.

Examples could include a number of ground source heat pumps connected together which deliver low temperature heat to individual homes in a development, or a centralised biomass boiler providing heat which is delivered to houses through insulated pipework. It could be a small hamlet, a terraced street, a block of flats or a whole town. There is no one way to do this and each community will have different needs.

The switch to community heat can be overwhelming for people to tackle at an individual level, from the task of understanding which technologies are a good fit for their home, to the capital costs involved. Tackling heat at a community level can help overcome these issues, as well as having other advantages, such as:

  • Providing a cost effective method of reducing carbon emissions
  • Being suitable for hard to treat, poorly insulated properties where individual ASHPs might not be appropriate
  • Overcoming barriers to individual action
  • Addressing fuel poverty and access to low carbon heat for all income levels
  • In many areas the electricity grid will need to be reinforced to deliver the additional demand from ASHPs and GSHPs. A community approach can enable a strategic plan for grid reinforcement which would be more efficient and reduce costs.

For the vast majority of us, our domestic heating is largely provided by multinationals, and very little of this is retained in the local economy. District heating schemes capture the opportunity of heat, and can keep the majority of the revenue associated with providing it in the region. Community heat means heat can be owned, generated and distributed on a local basis only.

With all of the advantages taken into account, community heat seems an obvious choice, however, community heat projects are still very new in the UK with relatively few up and running. Current levels of knowledge of low carbon heat in the general public is not especially high, so early and effective engagement with community groups to explain what it is and its benefits is vital. It may also need funding, incentives and other interventions from local authorities, for example.

However, there are a number of exciting projects in development looking at different scales, models and technologies. I have been directly involved in projects demonstrating that community heat is a concept that is gaining pace, but still requires education.

A prime example is a project I am currently leading, which provides technical expertise for the Scottish Government’s Community Heat Development Programme[2], an initiative that is delivering feasibility study support for communities across Scotland to explore community heat ideas.

The aim of the programme is to learn how communities and groups of householders can work together to make buildings in their communities more environmentally friendly with regards to heat. The project will develop useful resources on issues such as ownership models for community heat and case studies. We want to help these communities test their ideas and develop feasible options to change the way buildings are heated.

This is a welcome approach involving Scottish government backing, whilst working on the ground, directly with residents. If it proves successful, I hope there will be some key learning that the rest of the UK could use in a bid to change the course of how we heat our homes in future.

[1] Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2021) Heat and Buildings Strategy. Figure 2: UK emissions in 2019, p23. Available here.

[2] https://localenergy.scot/funding/community-heat-development-programme/