Tuesday 15th June 2021
Heat Networks are increasingly designed into new build BTR developments, but they are not universally popular or welcome. In this webinar, Insite Energy talked through why heat networks matter and the UK government policies & drivers which mean they’re here to stay. They candidly explored the factors which can give Heat Networks a bad rep, and talked through the mitigation strategies which enable BTR developers & operators to reduce risk, get the best from Heat Networks, and ultimately benefit the most important stakeholders, your BTR residents.
Emily has over 6 years of experience in the energy industry, with focus on district and communal heating systems and solutions. Having developed and delivered solutions covering all aspects of heat network management from financing through to maintenance across a wide range of schemes, Emily now focuses on working with clients to develop service packages that meet the needs of each individual development; specifically surrounding metering & billing strategies to ensure best value for both client and customer.
Heat networks are here to stay, so how do we make them work for our Build to Rent schemes?
With strong potential to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment, heat networks are a crucial component of the government’s strategy to clean up the UK’s energy supply. In fact, if we are to cost-effectively meet our national 2050 net-zero carbon deadline, it’s estimated that around 18% of our heat supply must come from communal or district heating – up from just 2% in 2018.
Consequently, in recent years, we’ve seen new funding and regulatory programmes designed to encourage the development of district and communal heating schemes, with more to come. And it’s already working. Many local authorities are now advocating or even mandating, that developers connect new-build properties to low-carbon district heating schemes, and they are becoming increasingly designed into new-build BTR developments.
However, there are some recurring issues that can crop up when dealing with heat networks.
Coming late to the regulation party compared to other utilities has caused inconsistencies in the heat network sector – from the design and specification of new systems through to ongoing customer service delivery. A lack of understanding and consideration of the long-term impact of decisions made early on in scheme development too often impairs performance and erodes consumer experience.
Given that heat networks are here to stay, we urgently need to iron out these wrinkles by standardising on best practice approaches and making sure communal heating works for all BTR stakeholders, particularly residents.
To aid this process, we recently held a series of focus groups with BTR developers and operators to gauge the level of industry experience and knowledge surrounding heat networks, understand in depth the challenges and frustrations people are experiencing. We shared these findings in this UKAA webinar and I will outline some of them here too.
Find a partner who ‘gets’ you
A few key themes emerged from our conversations. Unsurprisingly, customer experience was a prominent focus, combined with a need to be aligned with developers’ and operators’ own brands, services and systems. Heat network service providers need to fully understand and respond to both the commercial needs of their client, including their preferred working habits, ethos, internal management systems and reporting requirements, and the needs and lifestyles of the residents of individual housing schemes.
Developers and operators should also partner with trusted heat network service providers who will be around to support in the long haul and have a long-term vision for how the network will be used and managed across its whole lifetime, including the likely costs. Honesty and transparency are key to make well-informed decisions.
Flexible and simple
Suppliers must be adaptable and flexible too. For example, offering advice to operators as heat source technologies evolve to help maximise environmental benefits or enabling a switch between credit and pay-as-you-go (PAYG) billing to help manage debt. New solutions such as the KURVE web-app offer this latter kind of flexibility in an affordable way, while giving residents freedom to manage their energy services quickly and easily at their convenience, without needing to contact their service provider.
Making things as simple as possible for everyone is crucial, especially during change-of-tenancy transitions and post-occupancy management. Ideally, all information and services relating to heating, hot water, and cooling services should be accessible via a development’s ‘one-stop-shop’ platform for residents, to avoid the need to use separate systems – while also making appropriate provision for those who can’t use the internet.
There is a large amount of service-level disparity between heat network service providers, compared to more regulated markets. It’s well worth looking into customer service statistics and accreditations and probing aspects such as transparency and flexibility before signing any contracts.
Learning from other sectors
With the BTR sector growing at speed, developers, operators, and contractors are coming up against heat network challenges that other sectors have already addressed. Successful schemes are those where all the stakeholders involved throughout the lifecycle of a heat network participate in decision-making processes during the planning stages, guided by specialist experts.
A good example is metering and billing. Too often we hear the solution specified during the build stage doesn’t factor in the needs of those ultimately inhabiting or managing a development and is consequently not fit for purpose. There are many hardware, software, and service options available, each offering varying levels of convenience, flexibility, interoperability, ease of use, customer service and life-time cost. It can be hard to pick the right one.
The importance of data
Performance data is another area where BTR operators can learn from other sectors. Data analysis is crucial for identifying faults and inefficiencies and keeping costs and emissions down. Yet too often data isn’t captured or made accessible to energy managers because they haven’t been involved during the specification stage.
Depending on the metering system installed, analytics can also be used for smart maintenance to identify when equipment such as HIUs need servicing, avoiding unnecessary routine work and reducing costs, breakdowns, and customer inconvenience.
Residents, too, are increasingly keen to have access to real-time usage data. Almost half (47%) of residents’ page views on our KURVE web-app relate to energy consumption data. Giving people this kind of information changes behaviour and can reduce usage by up to 20% within two years, and also promotes a transparent consumer-supplier relationship.
While there are many factors to consider when specifying heat networks, the good news is this means you can tailor a solution that exactly fits your needs. And you don’t have to do it alone. There is a lot of expertise out there to draw on, either within or beyond your organisation.
Gathering expert input on what works well and what to avoid is a great starting point for a conversation with all stakeholders about their needs throughout the lifetime of the system. This can then feed into a consistent, defined procurement strategy that can flex and adapt to the needs of individual developments.
Similarly, if you’ve inherited a system that doesn’t meet your residents’ or your organisation’s needs, don’t despair. If the original supplier is still contactable, liaise with them to see if adjustments can be made. If not, there are suppliers who are experts in fixing and improving failing systems and can help you get the best out of what you have. At Insite Energy, we work with suppliers across the heat network sector and we’re always happy to talk to you and point you in the right direction. So, give us a call!
Emily Lister is Head of Business Development at Insite Energy