Cars back up at the red traffic lights, then zip onwards at the twinkle of green – past the eastern side of the big straight Belgard Road in Tallaght, where a long grey building stretches out under a grey blotchy sky.
In the coming days, Codema, Dublin’s Energy Agency expects to sign contracts for a scheme that would suck the heat from this long grey building – an Amazon data centre – and pipe it to some of the public and residential buildings in the wider neighbourhood.
If it goes ahead as planned, this would be the first “district heating” project in the city.
And it’s one of a number of district heating projects that Codema is hoping to get up and running. Its research suggests that 70 percent of Dublin is suitable for district heating, says Donna Gartland, the CEO of Codema.
For Dubliners, piping boiling water from heat sources that already exist – straight into radiators and hot water tanks – would mean it’s time to finally wave goodbye to those dirty fossil fuels and that sense of panic that the immersion’s been left on, says Gartland.
“It is heating and hot water on demand,” she says. “You don’t have to have a boiler or any technology in your home.” Though you’d still have to pay for the service.
But to roll out district heating requires lengths and lengths of new pipes, a major infrastructure challenge. The government needs to get on board if it plans to make Ireland carbon neutral by 2050, says Gartland.
Late to the Game
Ten years ago, Eoin Ó Broin, an independent councillor on South Dublin County Council, lived in Gothenburg in Sweden. Back then most public buildings and apartment complexes in that city used district heating, he says.
“Electricity is piped to people, as is gas. This was heat being piped into your radiators 24 hours a day,” he says.
The Swedes have been doing it for decades, he says. The technology was developed in the late 1800s, says Ó Broin, who has been interested in the system since his time in Scandinavia.
District heating systems are “very much the norm across Europe”, says Gartland. “So we are really far behind.”
Ireland can’t afford to continue to lag back either, she says, since Ireland has some of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the EU. “We are second-last in Europe in terms of our heating and cooling renewables,” she says.
Much of Dublin could eventually be served by district heating, Codema has found after research that drew in census figures, average BER ratings and estimates of heat demand.
District heating is most suitable in areas of dense population, Gartland says. It wouldn’t be worth laying a whole new set of pipes in a rural area, she says.
“The most feasible areas are the ones where buildings are closest together, you need fewer pipes,” she says.
Places needing oodles of heat, like industrial buildings, hospitals, or swimming pools add to viability.
“More than 70 percent of the ‘small areas’ in Dublin city are viable,” she says, referring to a geographical unit used for the census.
Codema examined potential heat sources available locally – mapping power plants, data centres, industrial units, and the geothermal sources of heat that occur in nature, she says.
Take the Guinness factory in the Liberties, she says. You can see the steam coming off it. That steam could be harnessed to supply heating and hot water to the new children’s hospital just up the road, she says.
Other Big Sources
Data centres have a bad reputation due to their high carbon emissions, but in the future, they could provide the key to reducing Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels, says David Connolly, CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association.
That is because data centres, going forward, could sign corporate power-purchase agreements, which would finance wind farms to offset their use of electricity, he says.
“If that electricity is renewable and then the heat is used for district heating … you will then get a second use out of your renewable electricity,” says Connolly.
The Amazon data centre in Tallaght had to play ball with the project, as it was laid down as a condition of their planning permission, says Gartland.
They will heat the South Dublin County Council buildings, including County Hall, as well as a yet-to-be-developed site over the road, which on a recent Monday had “Acquired by Marlet” signs, at intervals along the perimeter.
Linking in was also good for Amazon as they were able to say they would contribute something to the community, Gartland says.
Other data centres, including one in Fingal, have similar requirements in their planning permission, she says. As they all should, going forward, she says.
“We are lucky that we are only developing district heating and we have all these data centres,” she says.
Another heat source that Codema has highlighted is the waste-to-energy incinerator in Poolbeg, which obviously gives off a lot of heat.
The plan is for that to provide district heating to the new homes at the former Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, which is being developed for around 3,500 homes, as well as to businesses in the Docklands, says Gartland.
“They have been future-proofed for district heating,” she says. That means that the new buildings in the Docklands currently operate a water-based heating system so they can easily be linked up to the district heating once it is rolled out.
Likewise, the Grangegorman campus, which is the new home of TU Dublin, is ready to go for district heating although there isn’t a pilot planned there yet, she says.
With South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council, Codema is rolling out a number of pilot projects to prove the benefits of district heating.
A pilot capturing heat from the Poolbeg incinerator will supply heat to homes and businesses nearby. That should kick off next year, she says.
Support from the chief executives of those two councils was pivotal in getting the projects off the ground, she says.
South Dublin County Council has established a not-for-profit utility company. That’s a model other local authorities can now emulate, says Gartland.
The two other Dublin local authorities are also examining possibilities, she says.
District heating would be cheaper and better in the long run than current heat sources, she says, “Once the infrastructure is in the ground, it is only the cost of pumping the water around.”
The major hindrance to progress is that the systems require major new infrastructure – laying pipes wrapped in a foot of insulation to keep the water hot.
“We are competing with the established network of gas, which has already been paid for by the Irish people,” says Gartland. “Gas itself is very cheap.”
Semi-state companies have a lot of influence too, she says. “We are up against the big guys.”
“We have been lobbying for years for the government to support district heating like they would with other low-carbon technologies,” she says.
Gartland sees district heating as playing a pivotal role in the government’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2050. “We need to change that mindset at a national level.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 27 February 2020 at 14.10 to correct that David Connolly was talking about purchase-power agreements, rather than planning permissions, as the possible route for data centres to link in with wind farms. Apologies for the error.]