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Community heating infrastructure in Amsterdam – what can we learn?

– 4 min read

District heating systems aren’t new but following a pledge to be a carbon net zero city by 2040, Amsterdam is taking them to the next level. A group of Housing Association representatives from Places for People and the Future Homes Consortium decided to visit the city to explore the possibilities of this new approach and technology for our own customers back in the UK.

A window into our field visit

Our day began with an exploratory visit to a field outside a waste incinerator plant, where we met with a team of knowledgeable Dutch experts and learnt about how it all works. The pipes running through the ground - the major infrastructure required to make the system work throughout Amsterdam - are a serious bit of kit. In contrast, the actual plant turning the waste heat into hot water for homes was surprisingly small and neat, but very clever.

The opportunity is huge. We were informed that industrial waste heat is currently equivalent to the residential heating need in the city of Amsterdam. Simply put, industrial waste heat could supply the whole city with heating.

The system in Amsterdam is about delivering large-scale infrastructure which connects homes across the city to decarbonised heating sources. The key differences to traditional systems are the scale and that, over time, the heating sources used can be changed, and increasingly sustainable options can be deployed as they become available.

Collaboration matters

Our second stop was meeting with representatives of the Amsterdam Housing Associations involved in the infrastructure rollout. This highlighted the level to which they are collaborating across the city, and with private companies and government, to make all this happen. Bringing both the infrastructure and the community buy-in together, for neighbourhoods where the systems can work, is not a quick and easy process. Deep cross organisational working - building trust and commitment across organisational boundaries and with communities for the long haul is crucial.

Community engagement

What is interesting is the community engagement needed and the requirement for 70% of a neighbourhood to sign up to the scheme before it is rolled out. The Government has just changed the legal framework so that it is 70% of people who respond to communications about the network, rather than 70% of inhabitants – this makes a significant difference.

Having an enabling framework is important so that one household can’t serve as a blocker – a framework that does not yet exist in the UK. Even with such a framework, it is clear that serious community engagement is needed to roll out this type of system.

From a resident’s perspective, it was good to hear that there is a relatively minor impact of being connected to the system at a household level – a boiler can be replaced with a heat exchanger of similar size in a few hours. This means minimal disruption and inconvenience to residents.

Thermal PV at Almere

The last stop in the visit was to Almere Sun Island. The facility uses a combination of waste heat and solar heat to supply heating and hot water to 2,700 homes. It was interesting to hear that systems like these have a relatively short payback period.

The principle behind these thermal solar panels and the familiar solar ones is the same. They absorb raw energy from the sun and use it to create usable energy. In solar PV systems, this is through the creation of electricity, whereas thermal systems are used directly for heating water or air. A benefit of thermal PV is its ability to function in more cloudy conditions and therefore, for more days of the year in places with less sun – a feature that could be useful in the UK!

Places for People already has thermal PV installed at Brooklands, so we can learn more from that facility and how the different approaches to set up and maintain the systems work.

Key takeaways

The first key takeaway, seeing the scale of the operation and the geographic area covered by the heating network, was that a significant financial outlay is required upfront to make a community heating network system work. Consequently, it seems unlikely any Housing Association could do this alone. Collaboration between providers where we have concentrations of homes would be key to making the finances stack up for community heating in the UK.

Building on this, it is important that we look beyond housing, and at other government and commercial uses, where we could put the infrastructure in place. Bringing in ‘anchor’ users such as a hospitals, community swimming pools or government offices could be a game changer.

A key takeaway from meeting with Housing Association representatives was that we should not under-estimate the challenge and need to work closely together and with neighbourhoods and customers to deliver change and secure community support for rolling out the heat network.

A final takeaway from Almere was that we must ensure we understand the tech, the pros and cons and where each type of PV works best. Where we have suitable roofs and land for new developments or regeneration projects, it would be great to explore how we can roll out more of the most appropriate PV systems to lower our customers’ utility bills and reduce emissions at the same time.

Overall, a huge amount to consider and explore further, working with our Future Homes Consortium partners.

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