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SEAI Publishes Communal Heating Systems Study 

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) published a study assessing communal heating systems in Ireland, focussing on the challenges for users and operators arising from the recent energy price crisis. The aims of the study were to understand how typical communal heating systems operate in Ireland and assess options for alternative low carbon heat sources. The study also considered possible policy options to make these systems more attractive for operators and users.   

Instead of having an individual gas boiler in every home, a communal heating system uses a centralised boiler room to provide heat to the whole development through highly insulated pipe network. Gas used in communal heat systems is charged at commercial rather than domestic rates. The heating system operator pays the commercial rate for gas, and charges households for the heat they consume, based on that rate. Typically, they serve apartment blocks or housing estates. Approximately 11,000 households in Ireland receive heat from these schemes.   

Communal or group heating should be distinguished from district heating. District Heating schemes are large-scale systems that are supplied by one or several centralised or decentralised heat sources and serve multiple buildings and multiple customers. Group, or communal, heating schemes, such as Carlinn Hall, are smaller-scale systems that typically supply single buildings or multiple buildings within the same complex or boundary.  

Margie McCarthy, Director of Research and Policy Insights at SEAI said, “this study sets out the challenges that exist for gas fired communal heating systems in Ireland and proposes solutions to these. Central to the recommendations are that systems must be efficiently operated, prepare for low carbon heat sources, and we must have a supportive policy framework to make them more economically appealing. Heat is responsible for 80% of our energy use in the residential sector and the comprehensive National Heat Study outlined a number of potential routes to decarbonising our heat sector. It is important also that we understand current smaller scale communal systems and identify a pathway for them moving forward.”

The study was based upon detailed analysis of the communal heating system in Carlinn Hall, Dundalk, County Louth, an estate of 178 homes in Dundalk with a gas fired communal heating network. The original vision was to connect other large heat users, such as the local hotel, college, and hospital to a larger district heating network. Being part of a wider district heating network, with a variety of heat users and suppliers would likely have offered higher system efficiency and stability to the consumer. However, the economic crisis of 2008 halted these ambitions.

Among the findings were:  

  • Gas used in communal heat systems is charged at commercial rather than domestic rates. The heating system operator pays the commercial rate for gas, and charges households for the heat they consume, based on that rate. In 2021 commercial gas rates rose faster and higher than domestic rates, meaning a higher heat price for consumers.   
  • The heating sector is not yet regulated to the same extent as other utilities meaning consumers of heat have not had similar protections.  e.g., pricing transparency, technical standards or complaints mechanisms. However, in 2023, progress is being made towards the development of an appropriate regulatory and legal framework for the sector.   
  • The upfront costs to decarbonise a communal heating system can be significant. This is amplified when the owners’ management company and network operators have no sinking fund, investment plan or replacement strategy in their agreement.   

The study makes a number of recommendations for Carlinn Hall, as well as communal heating networks more widely, and furthermore for policymakers including:   

  • Addressing efficiency first across the existing network, including investigating efficiency of pipework, hot water systems and the heat-interface units between homes and the network and by developing a maintenance plan for these heat interface units.  
  • Plan to decarbonise by replacing existing gas boilers with low carbon alternatives, such as a ground source heat pump, air source heat pump or a biomass boiler. This could lead to CO2 savings of up to 77%.   
  • Policy recommendations include financial supports for network performance upgrades, support for upfront and operating costs, and extending the permitted contract periods for system operators.   

Download the report.

Souce: SEAI

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