What is a District Heating Scheme?

A look at how district heating schemes work and how they benefit communities and the environment

Imagine a more efficient way of heating your home, business, school or hospital where your energy comes from a big boiler at the edge of town. Imagine if your hot water and heating came from underground pipes in the same way you stream the football match on your broadband connection. This is similar to how a district heating scheme works its magic.

Oldham's District Heating Plant (image via Google Maps).

The latest version of Oldham’s district heating plant, replacing the original 1960s structure. Image via Google Street View.

District heating schemes have been in place since the end of the Second World War, as a means of communal energy provision over a given area. For example, whole cities and housing estates. Also universities and hospitals where energy efficiency matters. In the same way you control a boiler, your home is connected to the system by means of a Heat Interface Unit. This is like a combination boiler rather than a traditional cylindrical boiler.

A district heating scheme may be connected to a Combined Heat and Power Plant (or CHP for short). At the district energy centre, energy sources may include biomass and waste heat via thermal storage. Natural gas and coal were previously popular energy sources.

Instead of one boiler per dwelling, the energy centre within its footprint is a ‘boiler’ for a thousand or so dwellings. A school or three may be covered. This improves the overall energy efficiency of its area; as well as central heating and hot water on tap, residents benefit from lower utility bills.

Local district heating installations

Close to ST Heating Services’ base, Greater Manchester has a few district heating installations. The most recent one is Peel Energy’s scheme for MediaCityUK. This offers an efficient district heating system for the BBC, ITV, and independent production companies around this part of Salford off the Manchester Ship Canal. Furthermore, this also makes best use of The Peel Group’s energy interests which include renewable and non-renewable sources.

One of Greater Manchester’s older installations is on St. Mary’s Estate in Oldham. This was constructed in the mid-1960s for the soon-to-be-redeveloped estate, comprising of prefabricated deck-access flats. This was originally powered by coal before switching to natural gas in 1997. Oldham’s district heating system outlived the flats by several years and received a much needed upgrade in 2014. The original boiler and pipework was replaced and updated for a biomass fuelled system.