Heat Networks: Johnson’s “rocket” for his Green Industrial Revolution

green industrial revolution, stephensons rocket
© Ales Utouka

Stephenson’s Rocket was a major driver of the last industrial revolution two hundred years ago – will PM Johnson be able to deliver a similar principle that will be recognised in two hundred years from now?

The “rocket” Johnson may have in mind will be the antipathy of the Stephenson predecessor, which was fuelled by carbon emitting coke that belched black smoke (and carbon) into the atmosphere, allowing goods to be moved around at 30mph. The energy released was applied in many controlled and uncontrolled forms with masses of steam and smoke to add to what must have been a spectacular sight for many who witness history in the making. The evidence is such that the development of Stephenson’s Rocket started a process that defined rail travel for pretty well the entire intervening period to now.

The fuels used by trains have changed dramatically from filthy coke, wood and coal to a cleaner diesel oil, and now the super clean electrified rail network that must have the best green credentials ever. Mind you, it must be said that Stephenson’s creation has stood the test of time given that the Rocket has pride of place in our National Rail Museum. This is all the more interesting and the comparisons between now and then are the images of the long-term that the PM is encouraging us to imagine.

Little did the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution know that their activities would ultimately result in a “Green Industrial Revolution” two hundred years later. If we were to assign a colour code to the Industrial Revolution, it would surely be black to reflect the nature of the fossil fuels that powered northern Europe to what we have in the modern day, and the possible consequences we’re attempting to tackle in our now “Green” Industrial Revolution.

Our PM presented a 10-point plan on 18th November 2020, from isolation within No 10, that listed what seems to be a wholesale commitment to deliver our 2050 Net Zero objectives at breakneck speed. It was also described as a “government reset” following the departure of Dominic Cummings and his ilk, who for whatever reason felt it was time to move on. Perhaps this was viewed as just a bit too much?

There is little in the 10-point plan that is viewed as unassailable. There is the objective of installing 600,000 heat pumps each year from now to 2028 – that is over 4m heat pumps installed from next year for the next 7 years. There are plans for carbon capture, a town heated by hydrogen, and a target to generate enough wind power to supply every home by 2030. The ambitions are unlimited – are the challenges being thrown out to us realistic? Are we able to train people and manufacture the technology to meet these deadlines or will it prove just a bit too ambitious?

We do know one thing and that’s the need for us to start moving on the 2050 agenda. The Net Zero principle (the UK committed to this on 27th June 2019) is a relatively new commitment but does succinctly sum up what we need to do. We have no choice if we are to slow down and attempt to reverse the effects of carbon emissions on the planet.

The answer to all this will be the innovation – see point 10 on Johnson’s list – that we are able to bring to the table. Typically, in the housing sector it is recognised that some 40% of carbon emissions originate from heating our homes. This is huge and theoretically every person can influence the success of Net Zero. We cannot simply stop heating our homes and shiver away for the duration of the winter longing for summer to arrive. The technologies we are currently developing will hold the key to this accelerated Net Zero target. So, what is it that we already have that possibly holds the key to the short term, whilst we wait for the ground-breaking revolutionary solution to hit the deck?

We already recognise wind, solar, nuclear, air source and ground source as important generators of low carbon heat, but how is this scalable? What can we do to get this out to the highest density areas which by definition contribute the most to carbon emissions? Fortunately, we do know the answer and thankfully our government is right on the case. The technology is known as Heat Networks. The name is to the point and describes what applies but is it really understood and not just a gimmick?

Heat networks

We are fortunate that others have spent time developing this technology, so we don’t need to waste time reinventing any wheels. Look at the Germans for instance; well known for their robust engineering, they seem to have embraced heat network technology over the last 20 years. The same applies with the Nordic community, who heat vast neighbourhoods through District Heat Networks or District Energy, as it’s also known. Indeed over 65% of people in Denmark receive heat from a district heat network and are pretty happy with this. We have all the evidence, so what is the risk to the UK embracing a principle that is already tried and tested by our neighbours?

The answer is, if you have not adequately understood the technology, the chances are when you come to introduce it, you might not get the full benefit. We’re all familiar with the convenience of “plug‘n play”, but can we apply this to the way we heat our homes? This is where the introduction of heat networks is facing a few challenges. Over the last ten years there has been a definite shift to the use of heat networks by local authority, however it has produced mixed results. Lessons may not have been learnt and conceivably our Building Regs are not geared to the wholesale introduction of heat networks without being updated, as they are more suited to smaller scale installations and not community-wide industrial scales applied with heat networks.

As with any dramatic change from the operating norm, there is a need to ensure that consistency applies. For instance, when the UK moved from town gas to natural gas during the 10-year period from 1967, it was necessary to undertake a wholesale conversion to move the entire heating process from one fuel to another. This was a total success and the UK enjoyed two generations, or say 50 years, of affordable and plentiful fuel supply primarily for heating our homes. Our approach to heat networks should not be dissimilar. The government has pledged to ban the installation of gas boilers in new homes by 2025, which must mean we have an alternative.


Heat networks will be part of the alternative. Do we really think this should be left to the “plug’n play” approach? The transition from town gas to natural gas was successful due to a distinct strategy that defined how the country would deliver a heat solution for half a century. Surely this is no different a conundrum with a clear solution? We need politicians to stop sending out endless soundbites and deliver on the detail.

Heat networks are tried and tested by our neighbours and have a proven place to deliver our Net Zero 2050 ambitions. It is critical that the approach is not half hearted. The way that heat networks are installed and operated are key to their long-term success. Get them wrong, and the investment will be wasted. Get them right, and they could represent Johnsons “Green Rocket” as part of this low carbon industrial era.

*Please note: This is a commercial profile

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