28-09-2020

Innovations around district heating system offer solutions in the fight against climate crisis

Here’s a fact about Finland: it’s cold in here.

For about 6 months of the year, the thermometer is below zero degrees. And the further north you go, the chillier the weather.

What I’m trying to say is: we need heating. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Finland is known for extremely reliable district heating system.

Jaakko Tiittanen

In Helsinki, for example, the district heating system has been running since 1950s and the basic principle has remained largely the same: thermal energy that is mostly left-over of other processes or produced from the waste heat, is transferred along a pipeline network to customers.

New solutions for producing energy aren’t needed soon - they’re needed now

However, district heating system is, and should be, a continuously developing system. Today, in the core of the change of district heating is the fight against the climate crisis.

The use of the fossil fuels in energy production has been severely restricted. Finland will prohibit the use of coal in energy production from 2029 onwards. This means that a huge amount of energy must be produced in a different way. In the case of heating, it means that the energy must be produced locally or somewhat nearby. In addition, the new solutions must be discovered soon.

In the Nordic market, the focus of developing district heating is in the electrification of heating sector, primarily using heat pumps and developing efficient use of local heat sources and “recycled” heat.

This development means that the efficient use of the new heat sources requires producing heat on a lower temperature than in a traditional combustion-based production. New heat sources, such as geothermal heat, solar power, and data centers, also require more production units and sites. Development towards the new generation concerns both heat production and district heating network and substations.

District heating allows smart city solutions and helps in reducing fossil fuels

The new ways of producing heat causes some challenges for the district heating networks:

  • Ability to transport low-temperature heating to new buildings and between different customers and simultaneously taking care of old buildings that require higher temperature.
  • Ability to distribute enough heat in all temperatures and new temperature levels through the old network.
  • Ability to recycle heat from low-temperature sources and integrate renewable heat sources to district heating system.
  • Ability to contribute to the needs on heating and cooling markets and meet the targets of energy and climate policy while increasing competitiveness and economic efficiency.
  • Ability to control and analyze network condition, dynamics, leaks, and lifecycle in order to maintain efficiency, reliability, and high quality.

With all these challenges one might think: why should we then keep up with district heating?

The answer is that district heating gives, on a system level, indispensable advantage. It comes with a possibility to utilize different production units and energy sources, including heat produced by customers, more efficiently than units that are not connected.

For example, district heating allows to build smaller total heating capacities because buildings and consumers don’t use heating simultaneously and therefore can benefit from each other since they are connected through the network. Additionally, district heating enables that customers are not relying only on one heat source because district heat is normally produced from several different sources.

In the central Europe and in the UK, district heating is seen as the solution in reducing the use of fossil fuels. With district heating, Europe’s energy system will also be able to achieve remarkable reductions in primary energy supply and carbon dioxide emissions.

Are the most remarkable innovations yet to come?

Good news for all startups and innovators:

Solutions for the next generation of district heating have not yet been made.

What we need now, is piloting, pioneer solutions, and execution plans on how to change the old, gigantic infrastructure to respond the new demands without making compromises in reliability and cost-effectiveness.
We have recognized that there is a need for, for example, cleantech, AI, and Big Data innovations. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that we need a lot of experience and know-how on dynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and network construction and in addition strict control and quality systems in order to succeed in developing district heating.

We encourage players from different tech fields to join the forces and together innovate the new generation of district heating globally.


The author is the head of Helen Project Management team and is part of the Helen Ventures business development team with 15 years of experience in district energy systems.


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