At a recent Westminster Energy Forums event in London, CEO of Passiv-Systems Colin Calder explained to the gathering of power professionals and policymakers in attendance the great loss of potential his company had uncovered in one particular district heating network.

His demand-response firm had, he said, found ‘staggering results’ in deploying its platform of smart home controls, automated readings and network load management to optimize the network.
Colin Calder of Passiv Systems
“We worked with Parsons Brinckerhoff who independently assessed the project which found a 40 per cent improvement in operation efficiency on the district heat network in question. In customer response measured, 85 per cent said they would recommend our controls over previous controls.”

Calder spoke to Decentralized Energy about the massive gains to be had by installing up to date control systems on heat networks, and the role of government in facilitating technology companies that can bring about greater efficiency, not standing in their way.

Much of Passiv-Systems research was carried out in Denmark, the number one country in the world, in terms of district heating adoption. 65 per cent of Danish homes are connected to heat networks. The government there backed the networks in response to the 1970s-oil crisis

The UK, by contrast, reacted by developing North Sea gas, yet the Newbury-based company has impressed the Danes.

For three years, they performed research in Denmark, running pilot projects and collecting intel. They are now looking at taking their second-generation technology back to Denmark.

“DTU is the leading university in Denmark and probably the leading university in the world for research in to district heating. They were amazed at the knowledge and experience we have of thermodynamics and how it relates to buildings and networks. Denmark now recognizes what thermodynamics can do for optimising district heating networks but we’ve been doing this for eight years when we launched our smart thermostat. We have lots of acquired knowledge and thousands of homes in the UK using them.”

PassivLiving works by learning the thermodynamic model of a home or apartment, using that information in conjunction with a 24-hour weather forecast to manage Delta T, modulating a valve, and monitoring return flow temperature, effectively creating a known performance level.

For reference, Delta T is the difference in temperature between the flow and the return flow in a heating system. A low Delta T is a symptom of a system that is not using the heat energy in the water efficiently enough.


THE SMART THERMOSTAT


They were the first company in the world to launch a smart thermostat. The device has learning capability. It learns about the characteristics of a home, comfort levels, when people are in or out, or asleep. Ultimately it helps consumers to reduce the overall average temperature of their home or apartment.

The smart thermostat enables the modulation of a return valve and can gauge if the temperature outside is falling or rising. Monitoring that rate of fall or increase in temperature informs the thermal comfort of the building.

“The valve can be modulated in order to maximize the amount of heat we pull out of the energy source and retain in the building. That’s how we get very high Delta Ts because we are modulating a valve in every home.”

“In addition, at the network level, we can disaggregate the production of heat and hot water. At the moment, a huge peak occurs in the morning when everyone gets up and wants warmth and hot water for showers and cooking. By disaggregating the heat and water, it increases baseload our system increases use of the CHP plant which increases the revenue generated from electricity and reduces the use of the peaking plants. All that put together is how we get to those 30-40 percent improvements in operating efficiency – we take all the second guessing out of the network.”

It begs the question, why isn’t such technology being deployed in making British heat networks more effective? The proven technology should on paper be playing its part in the much-needed modernisation of the existing network infrastructure.

A clue is offered in the approach of the Danish government.

“In Denmark there is a legal framework where the network operator has an incentive to achieve a Delta T of 30 degrees Celsius,” says Calder. “There’s a real incentive to achieve that in overall network performance, including network losses. “

Passiv’s offering looks an ideal fit for what the UK government is currently trying to do, reduce demand while making heat networks more effective. But, Calder says, the government’s attitude to enterprise in the area is frustrating that outcome.

“The government has a subsidy scheme aimed at the development of heat networks and I keep encouraging the government to look at ways of people making use of that subsidy in terms of having to achieve a certain minimum Delta T.”

“In my view the subsidy money should be linked to the deployment of smart technology that will deliver known Delta T outcomes at the individual home level because only then when will you drive up the efficiency of district heating in the UK and give the consumer better value for money.”

Passiv Systems“At the end of the day, being competitive is what really matters because district heating has got to find a way to compete with gas condensing boilers and that is a highly optimised supply chain with a very price-competitive fuel source.”


FRUSTRATED BY GOVERNMENT APPROACH


 Despite the imperative to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions involved in meeting such international climate agreements as most recently seen through the Paris Accord, Calder believes the government is handicapping itself in terms of how it deals with entrepreneurial solutions that could see targets more easily met.

“The UK has a real focus on industrial strategy and it is very good in that I think there is £4.5bn going into research and development every year and the country has a phenomenal track record in that respect.”

“Where the government has consistently failed is in taking all that brilliant R&D and helping these companies like ours, which is still a small business, to be commercially successful.”

“Personally, I do not think the UK has a strong track record in that space. If I look at what happened in America two or three companies got very successful on the back of regulation in that energy market. In the UK the minute I sit down with civil servants and say we have this great technology that can save 30 to 40 per cent, the conversation very quickly turns to ‘you’re the only company that has this technology and we can’t be seen to be favouring any one company.’

“I find that a deeply frustrating mentality for the simple reason that we should be encouraging other companies to develop the same technology and compete in the market.”

“The government should make sure that the companies that come up with innovative technologies that are beneficial to society and consumers have a fast way of getting to market and everyone else can pile on the bandwagon. We shouldn’t be afraid of driving market opportunity for any company.”


THE SENSIBLE SUBSIDY-DRIVEN SOLUTION

So how then can that mentality be overcome if targets are to be met? With distributed energy resources and associated technologies of all kinds feeding into the system is the government capable of changing perspective, facilitating the best technologies, while meeting civic obligations to ensure fairness in the marketplace? Calder believes there is a way to achieve just that.

“Firstly the politicians and civil servants should be technology agnostic- I totally believe that. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything.”

“If, in the case of district heating, you are going to provide subsidies because you know the networks aren’t price competitive and you want them to become price competitive, what you should be doing is saying if you want use of the subsidy money you have also got to be deploying technologies that will make you price competitive.”

“Now I am not going to tell them to specify our product, but what I am saying is that technology like ours allows heat networks to be price competitive. So, the officials should be thinking about writing into the rules if you want that subsidy you need to tick these boxes – For example there should be a minimum Delta T standard set. Denmark already does that and there are financial penalties if a certain Delta T level isn’t achieved. That’s not saying you have to use Passiv’s technology but what it is saying is that you have to achieve a minimum performance level at the home and therefore you will have to source individual technologies that can help you deliver that.”

“That should be the approach rather than we have this great technology, the government actually funded its development, but no, we are not going to actually do anything about helping to get that technology to market.”

For more on Passiv-Systems click here

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