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22.12.17

The future of communal heating in Cheshire

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2018

PSE’s Josh Mines speaks to Dan Griffiths, projects and programmes manager at Cheshire East Council’s Skills & Growth Company, about how the ELENA project is set to transform heating networks in the area.

Rising prices of gas and electricity are creating fuel poverty in local areas, and giving councils another major problem to solve. Residents not being able to pay their bills to keep their houses warm and the lights switched on is a serious for local authorities, as it indirectly worsens so many other social issues; older people living in a cold environment are more likely to need help from health and social care services, for example. 

In this environment, authorities have gone about considering this topic in different ways. Liverpool City Council, and more recently Islington Council, have both set up their own energy companies in an effort to drive down prices and give residents a cheaper alternative to the ‘Big Four’ suppliers.

But in East Cheshire, authority leads are benefiting from a £1m European Investment bank fund to develop ‘smart grid’ communal energy systems. Though these schemes are not new, Cheshire East is the first non-city authority to gain funding for this type of investment, following in the footsteps of London, Bristol and Glasgow, among others, to boost energy infrastructure in the area through the European Local Energy Assistance (ELENA) project.

“The investment bank is keen to see local authorities take an active role in energy projects, primarily to facilitate projects to happen but also for local authorities to enter into the energy market where they can create income for themselves,” Dan Griffiths, Cheshire Easts projects and programmes manager, told me.

Projects under ELENA will construct heat networks in Crewe town centre and Macclesfield that will move away from conventional individual boiler heating and onto greener, cheaper and better heating for residents.

“Power networks tend to be covered by the big companies, and for heating we are currently focused on gas ‒ however, that is likely to change away from individual gas boilers,” Griffiths continued.

These communal district heating schemes are innovative and almost certainly the way forward for councils trying to provide more efficient, cheaper energy to communities. Put simply, they are a system for distributing heat generated in a central location for residential and commercial heating requirements across a local area, and are backed up by smart grids – electricity supply grids that use digital communications technology to detect and react to local changes in usage.

“There’s a huge number of benefits to these systems,” Griffiths explained. “There’s potential for the authority to enable local economic ambitions through putting these networks in, and being providers of that type of economic infrastructure, so there’s benefit for the authority in creating a revenue stream that could go towards other services.”

On top of this, Griffiths also argued that the systems give local economies additional resilience for investors, something which can benefit vulnerable people in society. “If we can provide that security of supplying and that security for residents within town centres, we can help those that are more vulnerable from fuel poverty and certainly that’s another angle,” he explained. 

And as the programmes manager told me, these systems are not just the future for Cheshire, but also for the nation, especially in the context of climate change targets.

“These types of heat networks will be absolutely critical and they will provide a security of supply for both businesses and residents going forward,” he asserted.

Though Cheshire East is the first non-city authority to work towards adopting this technology, Griffiths argued that it can be delivered in other areas.

“We have demonstrated that you can do it. But it does take a fair bit of political will,” he said. “An energy framework that was adopted a few years ago and endorsed by the council showed that they were very keen on being active in the markets, and they wanted to be a proactive authority and look at issues around affordability and security of supply ‒ and the framework has been behind all this.

“But this can be done elsewhere. There’s no reason why other large towns couldn’t implement this.”

Top Image: kodda

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