Heat networks will be vital to hitting the UK’s net-zero targets

NHS England has set a clear ambition to be the world’s first net-zero national health service, setting targets to achieve this goal for direct emissions by 2040, and across all scopes by 2045. This is five years ahead of the UK’s legally binding target. Progress has been made across the service, but new and efficient strategies need to be implemented to meet this bold target.

By Leigh Carter, Director and North-West Healthcare Lead, UK and Benjamin Smith, Senior Project Manager, Real Estate, UK

Heat networks (HNs) supply heat from a central source to consumers via a network of underground pipes carrying hot water. This enables HNs to fulfil a critical role in the transition to net zero. Delivered effectively, they offer low cost, low carbon heating options by capturing or generating heat locally to distribute over a large network and connect multiple buildings.  

It is a policy that has had great success in Scandinavia and the UK government has endorsed estimates from the Climate Change Committee that 18 percent of UK heat could come from such networks by 2050, compared to just 2-3 percent today. We expect this to be backed by legislation in the forthcoming Energy Bill, comprising regulation for heat networks under the energy regulator Ofgem.  

Heat networks are primed for healthcare 

NHS trusts are well placed to benefit from HNs due to the nature of their estates – which have typically high and consistent energy demands, where reliability is absolutely essential.  

HNs can also capture waste heat and distribute it around the estate at peak times. While each site is unique, a HN can be tailored to accommodate the estate: taking advantage of the topography and surrounding buildings to share energy that would otherwise be inaccessible. 

To meet their centrally imposed targets, NHS trusts must urgently look to start drawing up plans to decarbonise. This could include the integration of HNs while there is investment from government to do so.  

Ranging from combined heat and power, heat pump technology or captured waste heat from data centres, the source of the heat is diverse. However, the key to HNs will be putting the infrastructure in place. The UK government is teeing this up now, offering funding to aid installations, but healthcare executives need to put the plans in place to make this happen. 

The funding landscape is relatively comprehensive but complex, with multiple funding streams available for trusts to take advantage of. Feasibility funding and guidance through the early stages of project management can be found through the Heat Network Delivery Unit (HNDU), which has been open to bids since May 2023.

For new heat networks, the Green Heat Network Fund supports the commercialisation, detailed design and delivery of low carbon HNs. HNs can be improved through the Heat Network Efficiency Scheme, which primarily looks at existing or operational district heating and communal heating projects. 

The challenge for trusts is to obtain specialist knowledge that allows them to access funds and coordinate a successful project. Manchester Royal Infirmary hospital plans to become part of the Octagon Project. Manchester Energy Partnership Ltd has developed the Octagon Project, which is a Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP) funded hybrid decentralised energy network to aid the decarbonisation of the hospital’s Oxford Road campus. The project employs a series of technologies, including air and water heat pumps and thermal storage, to provide heat, power and cooling to the campus.  

Success relies on understanding the challenges for heat networks 

However, there will be challenges to installing these heat networks into our current healthcare estates, which need to be considered. One of the most prevalent issues will be to address the shortage of skills and knowledge in the sector. This will be especially true when the Energy Bill receives royal assent – triggering renewed interest in the technology and therefore competition for what are currently relatively scarce, specialist skills.   

Upskilling the industry is vital to ensuring successful delivery of these HNs and to meet the demands of installing this infrastructure. Part of this forward-thinking approach will also be to consider future-proofing design and plan the capacity needed now and, in the years, to come. 

Another aspect of this challenge to recognise is the importance of securing wider investment in order to maximise the upgrades to the NHS trusts and their estates, such as retrofitting or improving buildings’ heat efficiency. The healthcare estate as a whole has significant backlogs for maintenance work, which is affecting the performance of hospitals for patients. Addressing new infrastructure investment in HNs alongside – and in consideration of – this broader expenditure can ensure that funds are deployed to their full potential.  

A further critical consideration is the role of the energy supplier, and how these relationships feed into business case planning. Market testing is critical to help clearly understand the trends in energy generation and how trusts can be in a good position to negotiate contracts that will be successful in the long-term. 

There will be uphill struggles to installing heat networks, but, with the right action plan in place, these potentially challenging situations can be accounted for and accommodated.  

A greener, more efficient future 

Designing, funding and delivering heat networks relies on understanding these challenges – navigating the complexities of government funding, exploring alternative investment sources and bringing the right partners on board. However, the rewards for NHS trusts embarking on this journey are high – with the prospect of establishing low carbon, resilient energy networks that can play a critical role in the service’s path to net zero.  

For further information contact:

Leigh Carter
Director and North-West Healthcare Lead, UK

t: +44 (0) 7976 228 396