Communal versus Individual Energy and Heating

I have been involved with a number of projects in recent years where this issue has been discussed, often at great length, and often at great cost, talk in some circumstances is not cheap!

The discussions always hinge around the vexed question as to which one of these solutions is better than the other. The discussion tends to focus on carbon emissions, maintenance, management, user friendliness, and of course, cost.

The reason for having the discussion in the first place is usually because a project has a planning policy that says that communal heating should be considered before all other solutions. This is enshrined in the London Plan and is therefore picked up on by lots of other Local Authority planning policy documents up and down the country. The policy decision has been taken that communal systems are better than individual systems every time. There is no allowance made in the policy documents for situations where communal systems may not be appropriate because of cost or because of the type of development or because of the energy profile of the scheme.

The received wisdom is that because the city fathers of many European cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen have been doing this for decades, we in the UK must be missing a trick and should be doing likewise.

In theory this is correct, but the practice turns out to be very different. The tide of opinion among clients and professionals seems to be turning, the question is whether policy makers are listening. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Max Fordham recently produced an interesting study suggesting that many sizes of communal systems are not in fact any more efficient than grid systems.
  • Our clients in the affordable housing sector tell us that the job of managing communal systems is a nightmare for them as the legal restrictions placed on them as landlords means that they have difficulty charging for them properly from their affordable housing tenants. Where possible they like to hand over the management to an ESCO, but the majority of housing projects in the UK are simply not big enough to interest an ESCO partner, and the RSL is left holding what sometimes turns out to be a very expensive baby.
  • In my earlier post, I highlighted the problems of overheating occurring in many newly built apartment buildings where these systems are inadequately installed and the system heat losses overheat lobbies leading to residents propping fire doors open. This is surely a disaster waiting to happen.
  • The current cash squeeze means that there is less money available to fund expensive infrastructure in projects where sales rates are slower than ever. Developers are unwilling to forward fund projects any more than absolutely necessary, and expensive infrastructure of this nature fits into that category.

There is no doubt that communal systems have their place, but their place is not everywhere, on every project.  Care needs to be taken in specifying these systems and instead of an insistence on them they should be seen as an option for projects and not the sole mechanism for ensuring a low carbon future. The truth, as usual, is out there.


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