Forget Hinkley Point, open data could save us from climate change

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

You might not be familiar with heat networks yet, but they are a key part of the government’s strategy to cut the UK’s energy use, particularly in London.

The idea is that you do away with individual boilers and instead have a centralised system that supplies a number of homes through a network of pipes.

District heat networks already supply the majority of homes in Denmark with hot water and heating from a shared boiler system. And, little do most people know, localised heat networks are heating around 2 per cent of people’s homes in the UK today.

The greener the fuel that’s used to power the centralised boiler, the greener the system. That’s anything from gas, to biomass or solar, even waste heat from industrial processes, like the London Underground.

By 2025, one quarter of all London properties are expected to be using this kind of system, largely because developers have to prove they’re providing low-carbon heating.

So what has all this got to do with tech?

Cleantech startup Guru Systemsreceived funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to explore the use of open data to make heat networks better.

Using the metering and monitoring technology in their networks, the company identified inefficiencies that, if addressed, could save the energy market 800,000 tonnes of CO2 – and £400 million – over 10 years.

“The majority of the £400 million in projected savings comes from a reduction in the over-sizing of networks as well as increased fuel efficiency across the lifetime of these new systems,” Casey Cole, MD of Guru Systems, said.

“Designers currently use an outdated model to calculate the most amount of heat needed at any one time and this has lead to networks being drastically oversized to meet demand they will never actually experience.”

Guru has now created a web-based platform called Pinpoint that displays network performance in real-time and works with a machine-learning algorithm to improve it. It can pinpoint a problem down to the specific house in the network and also suggest cost savings that could be made by tweaking the system.

The data from the initial project has also been opened up by Guru for housing developers to use, which it believes could save 30 per cent on the build cost of the network. Residents involved in the pilot saw their heating costs halved from 7.7p to 3.8p per kWh.

“It’s great to see this evidence of how the clever use of data and opening data to others can save money, enable new approaches and help us all to live lives that are more sustainable and efficient,” Jeni Tennison, technical director at the Open Data Institute, which also supported the project, said.

“Guru Systems is not only using data to bring benefits to its immediate customers, by opening up data they are providing information to the market as a whole that could have significant economic and environmental impacts on a macro scale.”

The government is currently conducting a consultation on heat networks and is set to invest £320 million into the development of these projects.

A full case study of the project can be found here.

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