The city of Bristol in the UK’s south-west took an important step towards a green energy future last week with the signing of a contract by Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and the major hospital in the city to develop a district heating network for the first time.

From such small beginnings mighty installations grow, as illustrated in a major new report on district energy systems by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published just a week earlier.

The report makes some bold claims; principally that a widespread transition to modern district energy systems could reduce global primary energy consumption by up to half. Such schemes could also contribute 60% of the energy sector emissions reductions required by 2050 to keep global temperatures within 2°C of historical levels.
Bristol UK
Cities account for 70% of global energy use and 40–50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, says UNEP, so action at a municipal level is vital. UNEP says district energy is one of the most cost-effective methods available to tackle both primary energy use and carbon emissions.

The report is based on the real experiences of 45 ‘champion cities’ from New Zealand, to India, to Japan, to Poland; which between them have installed 36 GW of district heating capacity and 6 GW of cooling capacity, and are planning to expand their systems in the next few years.

The major obstacles to district energy are well-known – the high upfront costs of establishing a network of heating and cooling pipes and the complexities of working with local government bodies. However, the UNEP report tackles these issues head-on and in some detail, describing a range of financial and contractual arrangements used by the champion cities to get schemes into the ground. It explains a set of business approaches from ‘wholly public’ through hybrid public/private sector to wholly private – which should help any potential developer to find a way forward.

Back in Bristol, development of the scheme is being guided by consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was initially appointed by the Council to undertake a technical and financial feasibility study for a public sector-led scheme with cogeneration at its core. PB is now in discussions with the parties to enable them to reach a position where formal approvals for the project can be obtained.

Such projects can take a notoriously long time to reach take-off. Let’s hope Bristol is in a position to join UNEP’s champion cities before too long.