Communising energy: power to the people!

Communising energy: power to the people!

A brief critique of the existing model of heat production in Britain and a comparison with a communal system. If you thought things were rosy in the garden, think again...

Part of domestic living in Britain is receiving hot water and heating from a boiler that serves one property alone. In fact, around 93% of households have a single appliance in homes where typically the number of occupants per household is around 2.5. Natural gas is the majority fuel by far for all heat needs within homes and non-domestic buildings.

So, where's this going beyond pointing out that gas is king and there is a boat load of heating and hot water boilers per person? I hope to make a brief case for the immediate need to do away with individual boilers, replacing them as best practicable with a more communised form of heating, the district heating network (DHN).

The case against the crap we call cutting edge technology
Fuel, more specifically natural gas, is running out fast in Britain, and despite our dependence on a finite resource we desperately rely upon for industry and manufacturing, we burn the stuff in our own homes, regulated by nothing more than the ability to pay. The utilisation of renewable energy sources for heat production in Britain is, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change "around 15%... in 2012; this equates to 2.3% of total heat demand" (DECC, National Renewables Statistics), a figure that flies in the face of a common misconception that problems around resources and emissions control are being adequately addressed by technology. Furthermore, whilst the trend for using renewable sources of energy have continued to impress for electricity production, for heat production less so. In 1990, renewables represented a replacement of around one million tonnes of oil for both electricity and heat production, a third of that figure being for heat. In 2012 renewables replaced around 7 million tonnes of oil for electricity production and one million tonnes heat; considering most energy use is for heat production overall, development in renewable energy for heat production has seen the smallest change in face of the biggest need.

Successive governments have allowed individual gas burning boilers to remain the standard in homes and non-domestic properties, this has played a massive role in running down finite fuel resources, as well as increasing carbon emissions. Indeed, the current model has been counter-productive to the aims of carbon reduction and renewable energy targets. Perhaps not by pure coincidence, it also creates millions of pounds worth of tax every year for the Inland Revenue, something that is projected to increase year on year with the current model for heat production. It may be no surprise to learn that heat production for buildings and industry is around half of the total energy demand, producing somewhere between half and, if you can believe Edward Davey, Secretary of State for the DECC, a third of all carbon emissions.

The political decision: costing lives and bleeding us dry
There is no easy answer to the problems that we face in Britain when it comes to heating and hot water. Fuel poverty is a growing reality, resulting in people freezing to death in their own homes. According to the Office for National Statistics "an estimated 31,100 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2012/13 – a 29% increase compared with the previous winter." Genuine fear or inability to meet the growing costs of fuel is killing off thousands of elderly people, typically women over 75 years old.

The current model of heat production, one which is predominantly based the ownership of individual boilers, arguably reflects our own social mores, and certainly that of the politics of free-market Britain. Individualistic, temporary dressed as permanent, high maintenance, costly, wasteful and polluting. Responsibility lies with bill payer, creating situations where the poorest have to make choices between heat or no heat. Keeping warm may not be an issue for the well heeled; if you have the cash you afford all the latest money saving appliances - the poorest are on token meters and pay a higher tariff than those who pay quarterly bills.

Making someone rich
According to AMA Research, the UK heating market was worth in the region of £951 million (Manufacturers Selling Price) in 2012 and is projected by 2016 to be worth "around £1.06 billion at MSP, which would represent an increase of 11% compared to the market size in 2012." Obviously many factors play into this forecast, essentially relying on an upturn in the economy and stimulus from government initiatives such as the Green Deal, however the overall medium to long term market will become increasingly influenced by more critical factors such as fuel prices and legislation on CO2 emissions.

The heating spares industry, supplying replacement parts and additional controls was by AMA Research's estimation worth "£321 million at merchants selling prices in 2012." The spares market is forecast for massive growth, with more complex controls being constantly developed as well as a growth in renewables. However due to cheap generic copies often made in sweatshop conditions by workers paid a pittance, then sold on through untaxed online shops, getting a handle on the actual size of this fast growing manufacturing industry is proving extremely difficult. In short, the heating and spares industries are massive and even though there's been a slow down due to the economic slump, they are getting bigger by the year.

That's what little boys are made of... poison in a box
The amount of raw materials ploughed into manufacturing to produce an individual boiler for almost every home and non-domestic property in Britain is phenomenal. Technology has moved on so that appliances contain at least one, usually several printed circuit boards (PCBs). Whilst discussion continues as to how best to secure a constant, affordable fuel supply to Britain, little or no mention is made of the reliance on the many other rare and finite resources used to make the components in these appliances. PCB's contain a massive array of metals, often heavy and potentially carcinogenic, including gold, silver, copper, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, beryllium, tin, palladium, nickel - in fact complicated circuitry can contain around 50 elements from the periodic table, often very rare and extracted in unstable countries with corrupt and brutal governments. Take beryllium for instance, this rare metal is commercially mined in only three countries, China, USA and Kazakhstan. Boiler circuit boards are, on the whole, notoriously unreliable. Planned obsolescence is unnecessary; prone to water damage and with every electrical component in some way connected to the PCB's housed on the boiler, even the failure of an external control can burn out the circuit board.

So, these unreliable components, made from materials that are mined in countries that are often politically unstable and under brutal conditions as well as being environmentally destructive, are fitted to as many boilers that can be sold. Once the component needs replacing, the part either becomes part of landfill or is recycled, a euphemistic term where nearly all electronic waste is shipped to Asia or Africa often to be stripped for the composite metals. The stripping process is usually worse than the manufacturing for release of carcinogens and heavy metals. Rivers, ponds and paddy fields have been found containing poisonous levels of heavy metals from recycling, shortening the lives of some of the poorest and most exploited people. Even in the rich West, 70% of heavy metals found in U.S landfill waste ground is from electronic waste, which includes printed circuit boards. All this to supply us with devices in which to burn our depleting stock of natural gas - a process that is at the heart of climate change, with "nearly half the energy we use in the UK is used for heating of one sort or another. And of the total of 906 TWh of natural gas consumed in the UK in 2011, 52% was used to provide heat for buildings and industry.This compares to the 34% burned in power stations to make electricity." (DECC: The Future of Heating: Meeting the challenge, March 2013).

It's all in the PEF
As well as efficiency and renewables, the third key consideration in any future model is the non-renewable primary energy factor (PEF). This is the initial energy outlay in relation to the volume of energy produced. The aim is to have the lowest primary energy input in relation to the highest volume of heat supplied. So, manufacturing and supplying the millions of individual boilers under the current model requires an infinitely greater energy input than a DHN system. Even if the running efficiency level of individual boilers and DHN's were equal, consideration should be made to the PEF - consider the non-renewable energy consumed in the surveying, mining, forging, transport, manufacturing, packaging, installation, gas transportation network (the pipes in the streets) and so on, and that is before an appliance is up and running. The energy used to produce just one gas combi boiler for a single person living in a bedsit far outstrips the PEF share within a DHN. Running costs need to be factored in - no renewable forms heat and power come entirely free.

In Britain, DHN's currently use 38% renewable fuels - usually from bio-mass - and from an emissions angle, is regarded to be least polluting form of heat production and distribution, with electricity supplied for heating coming out worse, even above coal (Corelation of PEF and CO2, Euroheat & Power: District Heating in Buildings, 2011). And according to another report, this one to the DECC, "we calculate that a district heating network covering 250,000 households may save between 0.25 Mt CO2 and 1.25 Mt CO2 relative to conventional heating systems annually, dependent on the fuel used and the carbon intensity of centralised electricity production" (Faber Maunsell: The Potential and Costs of District Heating Networks, 2009). The PEF is an important tool to understanding just how one form of heat production compares with another. Take wind turbines for instance, if in an either/or scenario the PEF for building and installing a wind turbine is higher than harnessing existing geo-thermal heat (as in DHN's in Southampton or Paris), it may be viewed that turbines are not appropriate in this case. Simply put, a chosen technology has to pay its way. In a different scenario, it may be viewed sensible to harness both wind and geothermal.

Collective responsibility
From a more social angle, creating a solution for today's heat problems doesn't necessarily required reinventing the wheel. There is never a one size fits all answer to heat production and this is key to understanding what is possible and what isn't practical. We all have the same needs - power and heat - but how we deliver those services may depend on where you live. Cities have a completely different potential to a lone isolated farm cottage. In the Shetland Isles, they have incorporated wind turbines in their DHN system and have reduced their fuel costs between 30-40% - roughly in line with their carbon reduction.

From a anarcho-syndicalist point of view, having collective responsibility over resources is important, as well as delivering services on a needs basis; creating a system of heat networks using whatever is best to hand to deliver the service that improves both CO2 efficiency and the renewable fuel factor whilst being controlled and run by the communities that use the service. Collective solutions for collective problems are at the heart of socialist thought, fortunately for us on this occasion, there is a collective solution out there that has a proven track record over the individualistic model most of us live with at present.

A possible solution
Based on existing technology, district heating networks (DHN) offer the best possible solution. In it's most basic form, district heating is a central boiler plant and pipe network supplying multiple properties. These systems have been around in Britain since the fifties but today only represents 2% of national heat production, largely because of the outlay in creating these networks. Things have moved on from the 1950's and today's DHN's are often cogeneration (creating power and heat) or trigeneration (creating power, heat and cooling for air-conditioning). Ideally networks will include other heat and power sources such as industry, harnessing the free surplus heat created in industrial processes, transferring this free heat into the network for use elsewhere. Other forms of heat and power production can be linked into the network such as wind turbines, geo-thermal, ground and air source and solar thermal arrays; in short, whatever works best. Furthermore, energy can be saved and used when needed using accumulators. This plays an important role if solar arrays are relied on.

Using renewables and waste heat doesn't just lower carbon emission - in a capitalist economy it lowers people's bills, something perhaps of little concern in a communist society. And like carbon emissions, just how much heating bills are lowered depends on factors such as the system design and fuel used, however according to the Combined Heat and Power Association responding to a survey of DHN's, "heating bills are reduced by as much as 50%... an average of 18% for domestic customers and 13% for commercial customers."

Outside of Britain, DHN's are widespread. Whole cities are served, integrating homes with industry and non-domestic buildings, harnessing heat and creating both heat, air conditioning and power. Even here in Britain, the average size scheme has over 650 dwellings. Feasibility studies invariably point out the greatest hurdle to development being the installation cost, however, as seen recently in Cambridge plans for an eco-friendly power station were scrapped after the city council decided there wasn't enough money to made. But isn't this the point? Money is consumption; if what Cambridge council value is profit, then why spend £25,000 on a feasibility study for a project that is in essence designed to minimise a financial return? But this is what we're up against; lip service and back handers. The governments pledge in the 2008 Climate Change Act is to "reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050," and professes to be legally binding. As long as we are still allowed to burn gas in the home, this target may reached for no other reason than we've ran out of the damn stuff.

Photo by Kari Söderholm

Posted By

Feb 18 2014 19:10


  • Collective solutions for collective problems are at the heart of socialist thought, fortunately for us on this occasion, there is a collective solution out there that has a proven track record over the individualistic model most of us live with at present.

Attached files


Noah Fence
Feb 18 2014 19:27

Nothing to say here other than that this is a very interesting piece.
I have never considered or even heard of communal power such as you described but obviously, on the face of it, it makes total sense.

Feb 18 2014 19:57

Where I grew up district heating is very common. Excess heat from a local factory is used for heating *lots* of homes. There are also smaller scale rubbish plants that burn sorted combustible rubbish and heat a smaller number ~1000 homes. It would be better to recycle more of the rubbish but the burning is very efficient due to scale and technology. This isn't new or speculative tech either it's been around for as long as I've lived so there can be no arguments from the reliability or feasibility side.

Joseph Kay
Feb 18 2014 20:13

This is really good, and a bit more of a constructive counter-balance to the more depressing stuff on climate change.

Something I've been wondering about, but haven't even tried to do the sums, is with refrigerators. A similar local centralisation would seem to make sense, and waste heat from the compressors could be part of a cogeneration DHN. David Harvey in one of his Capital lectures says something about this happening to an extent already, as busy workers nip down the corner shop rather than keeping the fridge fully stocked. So it wouldn't be much inconvenience, and if the maths works out, could be much more energy efficient too, cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Feb 19 2014 17:08

Such 'communal systems' are obviously better for many reasons ( and I have spent many years promoting these in my previous professional work) but their communal nature will always present problems for implementation and maintenance in a capitalist system which emphasises 'private ownership' and particularly the form of private individual home ownership we experience in the UK. Capitalism generally can only implement such schemes through the state overriding such ownership rights and in conjunction with commercial enterprises that are just as enmeshed in the pursuit of profits as any of the current energy companies. Such systems have more currency in the UK in homes with Council or other social ownership, but right to buy, including leasehold sales and 'regeneration' schemes promoting mixed tenure have broken up socially owned estates in such a way that even some earlier DHS schemes which were popular with tenants have subsequently been abandoned. Whatever the genuine environmental benefits I wouldn't assume that such DHS schemes run by the state and commercial companies would in practice solve workers problems in terms of fuel poverty or poverty more generally, though.

Feb 19 2014 20:10

Spikeymike wrote -

I wouldn't assume that such DHS schemes run by the state and commercial companies would in practice solve workers problems in terms of fuel poverty or poverty more generally, though

You're quite right to point out. Fuel is a commodity, commodities are sold for profit - and there is too many tax pounds to be harvested from the existing system.. but this is capitalism in Britain and throughout the world. Government's last 4/5 years and targets are always set outside their tenure. Nevertheless, eco-friendly district heating is starting to make its mark in Britain.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 20 2014 12:34

Spiky, while you're obviously correct in that post, there are intermediate fights to be had regarding the environment. I think, realistically, they're best had around, well, our collective material interests as a class. More and better public transport (which, of course, still functions as a commodity under capitalism), things like Plasma has laid out in this blog and, of course, workplace safety issues seem like pretty good places to start.

Feb 20 2014 21:58

Worth noting that the only part of the Green Deal that has had any success is the boiler cashback voucher scheme, which subsidises the replacement of gas boilers with newer ones.

Also, yes to the person that pointed out the negative role of right to buy in this. There are state funds available for District Heating schemes but they are rarely fully spent each year because of the difficulties in identifying / consenting areas with enough residents that are up for it. (This applies also to less intrusive measures like insulating the outside of tower blocks.) Also, there's public money made available for extending the gas grid to properties not currently "served" by it. This is treated as a fuel poverty reduction scheme because heating oil is expensive. It's very handy for British Gas to be favoured that way though.

Most all energy policy in the UK is throwing (decreasing) amounts of money at these small edges (or worse, individual behavioural change) rather than doing anything to challenge the property relations at the core of the problem. Landlords get offered free appliances, don't even bother to take them up. There's no question of compelling them to improve the efficiency of their properties (beyond a slow, pitiful minimum).

Feb 21 2014 13:27

Really interesting article. Very right to point out that our energy system is highly individualised. Add in to the mix the idea many have that unlimited consumption of energy is a basic right. I'm part of an energy co-operative and we did a study on an estate that mixed communal biomass boilers with a solar hot water system top up. Given the limited size of the systems one of the challenges to residents was, 'as a collective, could you manage the behaviour of wasteful residents?'. ie people who have the heating on full and all the windows open. That question provided for an interesting debate on collective action and individual rights.

The other thing to throw in to the mix is energy efficiency retrofit measures. District heating is fine, but in terms of both fuel poverty and carbon emissions we need to lower the base-load demand for heat required as much as possible first. That way we specify the appropriate sized systems for the community.

Again, we looked at a system that combined retrofit and communal renewable heat. Under current government financial systems (deeply flawed, I'm not defending them!) the only feasible system was for high density flats. The model doesn't yet work on terraced houses.

Mar 12 2014 22:26
Something I've been wondering about, but haven't even tried to do the sums, is with refrigerators. A similar local centralisation would seem to make sense, and waste heat from the compressors could be part of a cogeneration DHN.

Late back to this but I've worked out what was nipping me about it - the size. Fridges have much less space to maintain the temperature of compared with your heating even a single room. Also, they get to be airtight making the insulation easier. So I think it's very unlikely that the maths would work.
Air-conditioning, on the other hand... don't office blocks already share that? That's more comparable to heating and might have the potential you're thinking of. (Not this far north, though. No such thing as "waste heat" here...)

Joseph Kay
Mar 13 2014 07:01

Yes good point. I did find this, which concludes:

The use of heat pumps for waste heat recovery in supermarket applications has the potential to provide up to 100% of the required space heating for a typical supermarket. If it is assumed that gas-fired heaters provide space heating for a typical supermarket, then the use of heat pump heat recovery could save up to 100% in gas energy use.

However, I think my mistake is assuming economy of scale/efficiency, when it's quite probable that closed, low volume domestic fridges are more energy efficient than open, high volume supermarket chilled cabinets. So supermarket systems can recover more heat because they're running high wattage plant out the back to pump/compress refrigerant and generating a lot of waste heat. So I think the pertinent comparison would be to look at watts per unit of food refrigerated, then look at possibilities for heat recovery, to see if whether the inefficiencies or efficiencies win out. That report also mentions trigeneration, with refrigeration, power generation and water/space heating combined, which might tip things back towards local centralisation.

Of course if we're talking about revolutionary change, more local, fresh produce and lots more time may well do away with much of the need for refrigeration anyway, which is pretty much a byproduct of food-as-commodity.

Chilli Sauce
Mar 13 2014 14:50

Yeah, just on that, if food was locally available and free, there could just be large scale super-market style refrigeration systems where whole neighborhoods/streets could come and go as they needed to get their refrigerated or frozen foods.

Same things with a lot of consumer appliances. I mean, seriously, just the amount of productive waste and energy consumption that could be saved if there were just community banks of washing machines and sewing machines and kitchen gadgets would be massive.

Mar 13 2014 16:03
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Same things with a lot of consumer appliances. I mean, seriously, just the amount of productive waste and energy consumption that could be saved if there were just community banks of washing machines and sewing machines and kitchen gadgets would be massive.

How can putting multiple individual appliances in the same place make them more efficient?
edit: waste/energy involved in producing them would be saved of course. Is that what you mean or do you think running them be more efficient in some way too?

Chilli Sauce
Mar 13 2014 17:58

Nah, just that less would be produced and therefore the energy used in the manufacturing process would be significantly less. Plus, with the profit motive, planned obsolescence, bullshit marketing, and competitive markets removed, the focus would just be on creating heavy duty, long lasting appliances that don't need to be replaced every couple of years.

[/communism 101]

Mar 13 2014 22:02

Very briefly as I gotta a meeting...
The idea of things like domestic white goods like refrigerators and driers being linked into grids a la DHN is more than possible, it's actually being done to a certain extent. Air conditioning and steam lines are employed on the basis that energy recovery is maximised or (and certainly more importantly) that they use industrial free-for-all by-products of processes otherwise snorted up by the atmosphere. The availablity of refridgeration may be only something possible at the moment when considerations such as dwelling proximity, scale and industrial by-product processes are weighed up. But look, if you want to live in a remote, detached property and still have a fridge.. maybe a genuinely ecological proactive society isn't for you..!

Chilli Sauce
Mar 13 2014 20:40

Man, if I don't have a kegerator in my basement next to my pool table (yup, all those things), well then, it just ain't my revolution.

Seriously, though, I used to sell appliances and lawn and garden equipment and, in those industries, the built-in waste inherent to capitalism is just so painfully obvious that it still keeps me up at night. That said, I still think public transport is probably priority number one when it comes to sorting out this planet of ours. Plus, prior to the revolution, it gives us a good, collective material issue to struggle over.

Mar 13 2014 22:12
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Man, if I don't have a kegerator in my basement next to my pool table (yup, all those things), well then, it just ain't my revolution..

Nor if I can't chill my champagne wink
Cheers for clarifying above.

Oct 4 2021 16:23

Update 2021. Without revising my previous comments on this thread I am reminded that individual heat pumps of the sort now being pushed by the UK governments are not all they are cracked up to be and again very expensive to retrofit by individual property owners or renters so maybe it's time to look again at other communal systems both big public and smaller cooperative?
Having been edged out of our former cohousing scheme with ambitions to get a modern new build energy efficient system I'm stuck with my old private gas boiler and my dual fuel payments up 30% this year and a friends up over 100% . Many of the grant funded insulation schemes in the Uk have run their course now and that is of course hot news again though I wouldn't recommend Extinction Rebellion's current tactics as discussed here:
Fuel poverty very much on the agenda again here in the UK as elsewhere.