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4 May 2017

Are District Heating Networks Causing Fuel Poverty?

In order to meet carbon reduction targets, the government have begun to change the way in which communities generate their heating and hot water, making the shift to interconnected ‘district heating networks’ rather than the traditional home boiler. However, these supposedly-green networks have apparently been causing issues for many residents forced to rely on them.

The networks rely on either a small power station located within the housing estate or excess heat generated by nearby recycling plants and factories to supply heat the entire neighbourhood from a single source, but the system has been criticised by many for being unreliable, inefficient, and expensive.

One such critic is Uzoamaka Okafor, chair of the residents’ association for Myatt’s Field North Oval Quarter, an estate located in Lambeth, South London. She listed numerous problems with the estate’s network, operated by electric utility company E.ON, whilst discussing the matter with the BBC, chief amongst them being an intermittent service, and excessive bills caused by faulty smart meters.

Ms Okafor told the BBC, “It's been riddled with issues, from intermittent hot water and heating, a number of outages, to concerns around high estimates bills, customer service and technical faults.

“There are lots of residents that do not put their heating on at all; they go to bed early. I've bought one resident blankets, because she's so distressed about bills she doesn't want to put the heating on.”

A recent report focusing on the issues faced by residents on the estate, written by Ruth London of Fuel Poverty Action and Stuart Hodkinson of the University of Leeds, further highlighted some major issues with the network. In a time-span of just four years, there have already been heat outages on 48 days; some vulnerable residents were even left without heat for weeks or months on end, posing a substantial risk to their health. On top of that, excessive bills are reportedly forcing some to make the choice between heating and food.

Detailed within the report is the rather alarming case of local resident Edward Connell, who moved into the estate in 2015. Mr Connell, who already had to face the struggles of dementia, told various people in the neighbourhood that he was struggling with the network’s high bills before he sadly passed away in October of last year as a result of heart failure. According to the report, there was no food in his flat at the time of his death, leading to speculation as to whether the network’s costs may have contributed to his death.

In a letter of apology sent by head of E.ON’s heat division, Jeremy Bungee, following a meeting between residents and the company back in February, Mr Bungee stated that while he did not agree with all the issues raised in the report, he did accept that there had been some problems. He went on to comment specifically on the case of Mr Connell, in regards to which he said, “This is clearly a very sad case, but we have no insight into the wider circumstances of his death and the factors which may have led to it.”

He also urged anyone with problems with their smart meter to get in touch with the company so the issue can be corrected.

The government has ambitious plans where these district heating networks are concerned, putting up £320 million in funding in order to encourage the construction of more heat networks throughout England and Wales. Their aim is that by the year 2050, 18-20% of the country’s heating demand will be provided by district heating networks, hopefully leading to a drop in carbon emmissions. However, while the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy proudly state on their website that such networks “have the potential to reduce heating costs, in some cases by more than 30%”, communities in which such networks are currently in place don’t seem to be reaping any such reward. If the problems can be ironed out and an efficient system put in place, then perhaps district heating networks in some form can be used to effectively cut carbon emissions and costs, but for now, they simply don’t seem to be up-to-par.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.