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Could the tube heat your home?

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I spotted in the news yesterday that Glasgow’s subway system (affectionately known by Glaswegians as ‘Clockwork Orange’ for the fetching colour of its trains) plans to install water-source heat pumps to capture the heat from the water leaking into the tunnels, and then heat the subway stations and nearby buildings.

This is a great example of the low-cost, low-carbon heat opportunities that exist all around us. A detailed University of Southampton study found 5% of UK heat demand could be met from power stations’ wasted energy, while across Europe industrial sites could provide enough waste heat to meet 80% of total UK heat demand.

Subways, industrial sites, power stations, all of these have heat available to share, and yet to date we have done a remarkably poor job in taking advantage of the opportunity.

In an integrated energy system, waste heat could be supplied to a community heat network for local homes, public and commercial buildings at low cost and zero carbon. So if this is such a good opportunity, and there is so much waste heat available, why are we not doing more of it?

The challenge is linking and coordinating heat with local demand. Because transporting heat over long distances is so difficult, heat generation and demand have to be sited close to one another. Industrial sites and power stations are historically located far away from household and commercial heat demand. Counter-intuitively, the Environment Agency’s requirement that  power stations must recover their heat when cost-effective can incentivise them to site far away from local heat demands.

Even when a waste heat resource is located near the demand, it is difficult for us to change our normal way of doing things. Recovering waste heat requires partnerships which do not naturally or currently exist between industry, local authorities, and housing developers. I have heard of cases where housing developers installed individual gas boilers rather than access available nearly-free waste heat from a local industrial site because it appeared the less commercially risky solution.

It is through local leaders linking opportunities that we can begin to draw together our waste heat resource with our heat needs. When local leaders become a driving force, then the results can be very positive.

It was London’s Southwark Council which led on an agreement with Veolia Environmental Services to use the heat from the local energy from waste plant in a £7 million heat network for five local estates. And Islington Council could source the heat for its planned expansion of its Bunhill heat network  from a London Underground tube tunnel vent. In Stoke, the council wants to heat its city centre using heat from the local ceramic sector together with geothermal water from disused mines.

That is not to say there is not a role for the UK government. DECC announced in the recent Heat Strategy that it is assessing the technical and economic potential for the use of waste heat, and when the Renewable Heat Incentive is reviewed in 2014 there could be support waste heat recovery. The UK’s Heat Map will also be important to link heat opportunities. Incentives for heat generation and demand users to cluster would give industry and businesses access to lower energy costs, but the Government recognises the positive benefits of clustering , there are no policies to help bring it about.

Capturing heat in the Glasgow subway system is a good start, but the journey to access the UK’s supply of zero carbon, low cost waste heat is just getting moving. 


Jonathan Graham is the Policy Manager at the Combined Heat and Power Association.

Join us in our Delivering Growth : The Power of Partnership session at Heat 2013 to discuss the points raised in Jonathan's article and see how industry, local government, and householders can collaborate to capture the waste heat opportunity.

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