District heating pipes

How a data-led approach can boost confidence in district heating

Image credit: Dejan Gerhardt/Dreamstime

Large-scale centralised heating networks are set to play a major part in the UK’s plans for reducing carbon emissions. Innovative metering and billing technology will be needed to help to allay concerns about changes in the way we use and pay for energy.

As it aims to meet its targets for carbon neutrality, the UK government is looking into more environmentally friendly yet cost-efficient ways of creating innovative infrastructure in urban areas. The substantial contribution that energy consumption within residential buildings makes to carbon emissions means that clean heating technologies need to reach at least 50 per cent of sales by 2030 to hit UN sustainable development goals.

District heating is considered to be the answer to many concerns – it provides better pollution management compared to individual solutions, offers competitive prices, and generates one of the lowest carbon footprints. Bearing in mind the benefits large-scale heating networks would bring, what is needed to ensure that projects are also consumer-friendly?

District or communal heating is nothing new, particularly in Scandinavian countries which have been implementing it for years. Although the UK is still largely at the electrification stage and trying to muscle out gas, in the future, with a more densely located population and increased number of new-build blocks of flats, district heating will become a much more viable solution.

Following the model already implemented in Northern Europe, efficient heating networks involving centralised sources of hot water are likely to enhance the lives of millions of people. However, aside from the logistical issues around physically designing and building an underground heat network, there are other challenges that building owners and suppliers need to take into consideration.

For example, from a billing perspective, residents will not be able to choose the company they sign up to when moving into a block of flats – all heating will come from one company that installed the system in the basement. Therefore, such heating schemes leave consumers with little choice or flexibility in terms of their energy provider.

Amid growing debate raised by residents, watchdog organisations and suppliers, the UK government introduced new regulations late last year. These legislative changes require energy businesses to ensure customer billings are accurately calculated against tenants’ consumption of heating, cool or hot water using installed metering devices.

As the industry will continue to grow due to decarbonisation of heat targets, it is vital to have a system in place that allows smooth and real-time communication between properties, the district heating provider, energy suppliers and residents.

With further plans to expand heat networks across the UK, district and communal heating suppliers will need greater capabilities to provide efficient service to multiple households and handle a variety of data, including processing different billing costs, payments and inbound enquiries. This might sound daunting, especially with many tools and systems that need coordinating on a daily basis. Managing teleheating meter databases, customer portals and the bulks of information that come with it requires an integrated approach.

Such an all-encompassing solution not only provides end consumers with full access to a flexible, self-serve portal with complete transparency over bills and payments, but also reduces administrative issues and costs for energy organisations. For instance, having access to timely meter readings and delivering invoices automatically mitigates stress around end-of-month billings and speeds up complaint turnaround times. Furthermore, being able to manage all the aspects of the business in one place makes it easier to provide best-in-class maintenance, with functions such as scheduling engineering visits. Seamless services enabled with a centralised platform has the power to significantly improve customer experience.

Using real-time data equips customers with visibility over their tariff and meter usage, informs better decisions, and helps identify cheapest time of usage. Indeed, self-serve portals empower consumers to choose their preferred tariff, set up payments for utility bills and manage payment plans. An intelligent platform also enables monitoring of different services including hot water, electricity and sewerage, which means that usage and losses can be accurately read.

On the other hand, garnering all customer data through timely meter readings in one place also provides better visibility of billings. With recent economic volatility in mind, it is essential to treat financial vulnerability of customers as a priority. It will be increasingly important for both suppliers and customers to be able to predict and track payment plans to gain better transparency of finances.

Both suppliers and customers will benefit from having an integrated platform in place. Whilst end users can enjoy greater visibility and flexibility of tariffs and payments, providers can achieve seamless customer experience with accurate readings and real time insight into potential customer vulnerabilities.

It’s no longer a question of if, but when, centrally distributed heat will become established in the UK. District systems will soon become a reality for millions of British residents as we embark on the journey to achieving net zero. By adopting an integrated and data-led approach, suppliers can future-proof businesses and lead the evolution of eco-friendly energy.

David Mvula is commercial manager at ENSEK.

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