It’s time for community groups to start thinking about developing district-heating systems to help people in their areas move away from heating their homes with fossil fuels, a Dublin City Council official says. 

“I suppose that’s what we, nationally, needs to happen in terms of achieving the goals,” executive manager James Nolan told members of the council’s climate action committee at a recent meeting.

There are some large-ish group or communal heating systems operation in Ireland – each serving, for example, an apartment complex, or a housing estate. But these only heat about 11,000 homes, according to a recent report from the government’s District Heating Steering Group. 

District-heating schemes would be bigger than these, and the ones Nolan was talking about would be fueled with waste heat, air-source heat pumps, renewables like geothermal energy, or some combination – rather than the fossil fuels.   

There’s only one “relatively large-scale” district-heating system like this in Ireland now, in Tallaght, according to the District Heating Steering Group’s report. And Dublin City Council is in the midst of rolling out a second, which the report called “a nationally strategic project”. 

At the climate action committee meeting on 27 September, Nolan updated councillors on the progress on that Dublin City Council project – and on recent progress at a national level towards creating a system of legislation and regulation and funding to help launch other district-heating projects across the country. 

In the Dublin City Council area, which is short on data centres to draw waste heat from, and has only one big waste-to-energy incinerator, tapping into geothermal energy from underground could be a key, Nolan said.  

“We see a potential for deep geothermal as a heat source is another key piece that we are working on,” he said.

Ending fossil-fuel heating

Ireland has made significant progress in increasing the contribution of renewable energy – particularly wind – to its grid electricity, so the electrical stuff in people’s homes is contributing less to carbon emissions these days.  

But when it comes to heat, most buildings in Ireland still depend on oil- or gas-fuelled boilers. 

“Ireland currently relies on imported gas and oil to heat and cool 90% of its buildings,” according to the District Heating Steering Group’s report. “Ireland has the lowest share of renewable heating and cooling in Europe.” 

To change this, the government is pushing to get rid of oil- and gas-fuelled boilers – first by prohibiting them in newbuilds, and then by phasing them out of existing buildings.   

At the moment, the main alternative is swapping out a fossil fuel boiler for an electricity-powered heat pump. Then, as more and more wind and solar electricity is fed into the grid, more of the energy used to heat the country’s homes will be renewable. 

This kind of push has proved politically volatile elsewhere. 

Politico reported on 4 October that heat pumps were “at the center of Germany’s major political controversy of the summer — one that has helped propel the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the brink of a series of electoral breakthroughs”.

“In the U.K. last month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Conservative, walked back his own bans on gas boilers as well as petrol and diesel cars, warning ‘we risk losing the consent of the British people’,” the article says.  

In Ireland, however, the government is pressing ahead with its policies to phase out fossil fuel boilers. Since 2020, 86 percent of new dwellings use electricity-powered heating systems, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, of Fianna Fáil, said in March

While installing a single small electricity-powered heat pump in a single home or business reduces carbon emissions, there are advantages to lots of homes and businesses in an area clubbing together to get their heat from a single central source, a strategy that is fairly common across continental Europe. 

But district heating isn’t really a thing in Ireland yet. 

“In terms of district heating, Ireland is very far behind other EU countries: district heating makes up less than 1% of Ireland’s heat market,” the District Heating Steering Group report says. 

Progress on Poolbeg

While South Dublin County Council’s district-heating project is up and running already, Dublin City Council’s larger one hasn’t quite taken off. 

At the meeting of Dublin City Council’s climate action committee on 27 September, Nolan said work on building a network of underground pipes that could one day carry hot water from the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator into radiators in homes all around it has kind of begun. 

This is a project the council has been talking about for years. “This project has been beset by delays,” says the council’s capital programme for 2023 to 2025.  “We now expect to go to the market in early 2023 with construction starting in early 2024.”

The plan is to bring in “a partner” and form a new company “which is essentially the utility company that would oversee the delivery and then we would be subcontracting the design and build and operation and maintenance”, Nolan said.  

But the council still hasn’t gone to market, Nolan said. “What we’ve done is we’ve finalised our last market engagement in July, we’ve taken the lessons learned from that, we more or less have our procurement documents ready to go,” he said. 

In the meantime, the council has put in planning conditions in the Irish Glass Bottle site, and the docklands, to ensure all development is “district-heating enabled”, he said. “The infrastructure within the Irish Glass Bottle site will be delivered in Q1 next year.”

“Where we’ve had opportunities we’ve already delivered parts of the network within the Docklands area,” he said. “We already have put in infrastructure in the Liffey services tunnel, we’re examining the crossing at the bridge at the Dodder, and looking to integrate a crossing there as well.”

However, this is much the same as what Nolan told councillors in May 2022. So what’s the hold-up?

The council had secured a grant of €20 million from the climate action fund, which is for projects that help Ireland to meet its climate targets, according to its capital programme. It also plans to borrow €50 million for the project, but it hasn’t applied for the loan yet, the report says. 

Nolan told councillors at the 27 September meeting that, “The only thing that we’re working on currently and that we need to finalise is just the funding structure for that and we’re working with the department in terms of the level of support that’s available to DCC.”

The council hasn’t responded to a query sent Friday about efforts to sort out the funding for the project so it can move ahead, or a follow-up sent Tuesday. 

In a question submitted to the council recently, and at the climate action committee meeting, Green Party Councillor Carolyn Moore raised concerns about the incentives created by the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator.

“I am just very conscious that our national waste management strategy is now as much around waste reduction as well as waste management and how does that sit with a facility that is designed to process a certain amount of waste and needs to meet those targets?” Moore asked at the meeting. 

Has Dublin City Council “directed local waste management companies to divert recycling waste to the incinerator in Ringsend in order to fulfil the terms of an agreement or contract to ensure a minimum level of waste input?” she asked in her written question to the council. No, it hasn’t, the chief executive responded in writing.

At the meeting, Nolan said Ireland is producing far more “residual” (black-bin) waste than the incinerator could burn. It is moving up from a capacity of 600,000 tons a year to a capacity of 690,000 tons a year, but the country is also landfilling 300,000 tons and exporting another 280,000 tons, he said. 

So there’s no need to produce or find additional waste to burn, he said. And “The plant is only allowed to treat residual waste,” he said. 

Beyond the launch of the Poolbeg scheme

Once the council gets the Poolbeg district-heating system going, providing hot water to homes and businesses in the Docklands Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) and, eventually, the Irish Glass Bottle site, the next stage will be to expand it further to surrounding areas, Nolan said.  

The company it sets up to run the first phase of this district-heating system would be responsible not only for developing it and extending it into other parts of the city. “I suppose once we look at moving into the catchment area beyond the SDZ, into older building stock you really see a significant impact in terms of decarbonisation,” he said. 

Even as the council has been working on its plans for this big district-heating system in the capital, the national government has also been working on putting in place legislative and regulatory and financial structures to encourage the creation of more, similar schemes. 

“Energy used for heating and cooling accounts for 20% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions,” the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s (SEAI’s) National Heat Study 2022 report says. And the country has not been meeting its targets for reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.

District-heating presents a big opportunity to make progress in this area, the report indicates. While it makes up less than 1 percent of Ireland’s heat market now, up to 54 percent of heat demand in Ireland could be provided by district heating from renewable heat, according to the report. 

In the Dáil on 3 October, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) has been appointed as the regulator for district heating, and “The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is currently developing the heads of a proposed heat Bill, which the Department intends to bring to Government next year.”

Robert Moss, An Taisce’s Green Communities Programme Manager, who is a member of the council’s climate action committee, said at the 27 September meeting that he’d “come across a lot of interest [in district heating] in other parts of the country”. “Particularly in Maynooth,” he said. 

“Is it just aspirational at this stage or is it something that an organisation maybe as a community energy company would actually be able to start setting up their own district heating system?” Moss asked Nolan, the council executive manager, at the meeting. 

“No, there’s viability in that, definitely, and I suppose that’s what we, nationally, needs to happen in terms of achieving the goals,” Nolan said.

So a community group could go to the CRU and get a licence, and then go to the climate action fund with a business case, and get a grant, and set up a district-heating scheme? Moss asked. “So for the likes of Maynooth University they’re not wasting their time in doing exploratory studies now as to what the business case would be for this?”

“No, not at all,” Nolan said. “And it’s something that should be encouraged and I think that more and more across the public sector and in particular I think universities will be examining this and other, you know, large energy users as well.”

Already, some groups – in addition to those in Maynooth that Moss was referring to – have been thinking about this, said Gerard Doherty, a mentor for Dublin city sustainable energy communities (SECs), groups that look at ways to use energy more sustainably.  

“There is interest from some SECs in Dublin City,” he said by email last week. “2 SECs that I am aware of have had some level of discussion around it, but very much preliminary discussions.”

Heat sources

If councils or universities or community groups are going to be setting up district-heating schemes, they’ll need heat sources. 

The waste-to-energy incinerator has loads of waste heat, which is currently going into Dublin Bay, according to the District Heating Steering Group’s report, but could be diverted into people’s radiators. There’s only one in Dublin, though. 

There are also data centres, where racks and racks of humming servers generate heat that’s not needed and can be put to use. But it’s not hot enough on its own to provide heating for homes – so the district-heating system in Tallaght has heat pumps too, to make the water hotter before sending it out. That’s an extra cost.

So this waste heat is not quite as good. But it’s still worth using in a district-heating scheme, says Nolan. 

“If you have a waste energy source and you’re putting it into an air source heat pump and uplifting that temperature, the economics would still work that it’s more cost effective to develop the district heating networks at a scale,“ he said. 

The South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council areas have quite a few large data centres. Not so much Dublin City Council, says Nolan. 

So Dublin City Council has been looking at geothermal energy: the idea of drilling into the earth and using heat from there to warm buildings, says Nolan. 

TUD Grangegorman are now using gas to heat their campus, “but they are doing exploratory work with GSI, the Geological Survey of Ireland, for deep geothermal”, said Stephen Cull, an engineer with the council’s district heating project, at the meeting. 

“And I noticed last week when I was up in Tallaght as part of the TUD section up there, they’re starting to do another bore hole there for geothermal as well,” Cull said. 

Geothermal is a good option for district heating, according to slides for a presentation by the SEAI’s Niamh O’Sullivan for the National Geothermal Energy Summit at TU Dublin in Grangegorman on Wednesday 11 October

“Most areas suitable for district heating also have high suitability for geothermal resources,” according to the presentation.

But geothermal energy is more an idea at the moment in Ireland than a reality – though it is widely used elsewhere in the world – an issue that Dublin City Council climate action committee member Sally Starbuck pointed to at the meeting. 

“Geothermal is interesting but needs a good deal of momentum to get past the point of where it’s at now, which is interesting but not happening,” she said.

Building that momentum is on the agenda of the national government, which released a policy statement in July on the subject, setting out an approach for regulating the use of deep geothermal energy in Ireland, as well as an approach for promoting it.

“Geothermal energy is not only renewable, it is also secure, reliable, and local,” it said. It’s been used for a very long time in volcanic regions including Iceland, Italy and New Zealand. 

“Advances in technology mean that geothermal energy can now be used in Ireland for heating and cooling buildings, and possibly even to produce electricity,” the statement says. “Geothermal energy is now being used in non-volcanic countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and Germany.”

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