Community heating, district heating or heat networks all refer to a system that supplies heat from a central source to consumers, via a network of underground pipes carrying hot water. This avoids the need for individual boilers or electric heaters in every building. It provides an opportunity to shift whole communities away from fossil-fuel heating at scale.

The approach is particularly important for oil-based communities, who would be otherwise un-able to move away from oil dependency. There are around 10,000 such homes in Cambridgeshire, who would be unable to take advantage of any future changes to decarbonise the gas network.

Around 1/3 of carbon emissions in the UK are from heating. It is estimated by the UK's Committee on Climate Change that around 18% of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if the UK is to meet its carbon targets cost effectively.

While heat networks may be fuelled from a range of sources, we are only looking at low carbon solutions.

Community heating can aid in a rage of other environmental and social challenges being faced including: air pollution, fuel poverty and providing equitable transition to a low carbon future. 

The council is exploring how we can support our communities to shift away from oil, and are working with a number of villages to develop projects, the most advanced is in the East Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior.

The community heating network can replace individual household boilers; heat is supplied to each house from a shared energy centre that collects heat from a large source and pipes it into homes and other community buildings. Heat networks can cover a large area or even an entire city, or be fairly local supplying a small cluster of buildings

The heat source might be a facility that provides a dedicated supply to the heat network, such as a significant ground source heat pump; or heat recovered from industry and urban infrastructure, canals and rivers, or energy from waste plants.

This type of heating is often used in new developments, and the government has plans to introduce it into existing communities throughout the UK.

Heat networks form an important approach to reduce carbon and cut heating bills for customers (domestic and commercial). They are one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions from heating, and their efficiency and carbon-saving potential increases as they grow and connect to each other.

They provide a unique opportunity to exploit larger scale – and often lower cost – renewable and recovered heat sources that otherwise cannot be used. 

Heat networks can also make the transition to low carbon technologies more equitable, by giving those who may not have the financial resource to retrofit their own home the opportunity to shift away from gas or oil. 

What is a heat network - schematic summarising what a heat network is and how it works. This includes: an energy centre with power generation taking place; piping network to transport the heat to consumers ('off-takers'). These can also be combined with electricity generation that can also be sold.
Image: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)