Agenda: MSPs must warm to the idea of heat networks

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By Holly O’Donnell

TODAY MSPs are scrutinising a crucial piece of Scotland’s climate change puzzle: how we heat our homes and buildings. These account for a quarter of Scotland’s climate emissions, but we’re not seeing emissions fall quickly in this sector. But there is a way to reduce emissions and keep homes and buildings warm. Heat networks offer a reliable and efficient way to provide climate-friendly heating, and a way to kick-start economic activity as part of a green recovery. The roll-out of heat networks across Scotland could create thousands of jobs. We’d like the Scottish Government to grasp this opportunity, and this week, decision makers have a chance to help make that happen.

Local heat networks work by delivering heat from a central source to homes and businesses through insulated hot water pipes underground – like a giant central heating system. They can access sources of renewable heat that can’t be plugged directly into buildings – such as heat from rivers, sewers and waste. They can also help decarbonise some of the most challenging areas of our towns and cities like dense, urban centres with old and historic buildings that are hard to insulate or that don’t have space for alternative heat technologies.

Holly O’Donnell, Climate and Energy Policy Manager at WWF Scotland

Today, around one per cent of Scotland’s heat is provided through heat networks. The key task facing the Scottish Government is to create the conditions that move us away from a pattern of piecemeal development to one where networks become commonplace, in whole districts, towns and even cities. Legislation currently going through Scottish Parliament provides an opportunity to do that, by introducing licences and planning powers to make new networks easier, and cheaper, to build.

But the draft legislation by itself won’t create the conditions for new heat networks to flourish. A more strategic approach is needed, so we are calling on MSPs to support amendments that would introduce targets for the Scottish Government to grow the use of heat networks and publish a clear plan for delivery.

Setting targets and a delivery plan would help hold Scottish Government accountable on the roll-out of heat networks and would ensure a range of joined-up policies are developed to address current barriers to investment, helping achieve long-term sustainable growth. This will also ensure that unresolved issues such as funding for local authorities and technologies like large heat pumps, that can make new networks zero carbon, are looked at. If these problems aren’t addressed, the legislation might not achieve its goals.

As well as delivering for climate change, investment in heat networks will also bring new opportunities for Scotland’s construction sector, as part of a green recovery from Covid-19. Around a third of a project’s costs are for civil engineering works and in Glasgow we already manufacture the large heat pumps that can power such networks.

Scotland has an opportunity to make a real success of a tried and tested approach that could be game-changing for the way we heat our buildings.

Holly O’Donnell is Climate and Energy Policy Manager at WWF Scotland

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