New research suggests public support for neighbourhood wide "green utilities"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

There is strong public support for “green utilities” – such as district heat, vacuum waste disposal and water harvesting – that are delivered at a community scale. This is the key finding from new research carried out by Icaro Consulting and published today by the UK Green Building Council and Zero Carbon Hub, funded by the NHBC Foundation. This suggests public opposition need not be a barrier to delivery.

  • Seventy-one percent of people thought that a district heating system - heating a whole community centrally through one linked network of pipes – could be better than the current individual systems in their homes. District heating reduces carbon emissions and can lower energy bills. This efficient system also gives communities local independence, as well as ensuring that the country as a whole has a greater energy security, a positive factor for 79 percent of people.
  • Respondents were also in favour of sustainable community water systems, with almost 90 percent positive about using filtered rainwater for flushing toilets and watering gardens.
  • Over two-thirds (68 percent) responded positively to community waste and recycling schemes, whereby waste is collected via a network of vacuum pipes. An even higher proportion, 87 percent, were positive to using waste as a resource to produce energy, which contradicts widely held opinion by planners and developers that the public are against such schemes.

Seventy-three percent believe that the different facets of sustainable community infrastructure would make their area a more desirable place to live, with only four percent thinking it would have a negative impact.

The research showed these schemes were attractive because they enable an easy way of achieving a greener lifestyle, not only as an individual, but as a whole community. This helps counter the problem of individuals’ believing their own personal efforts will make no difference. Cost savings are also undoubtedly a very strong motivation.

While respondents had very few negative reactions to the proposition outright, they did have a range of practical questions and ‘conditions attached’. These largely concern practical issues (specifically in relation to disruption and ‘back up’ measures in the event of system failures) and a demand for safeguards against ‘free-riders’ in the community using the resources at their expense. Many of these questions could be satisfied to an extent by an expansion in the number of UK-based examples, since respondents currently lack any kind of ‘reference point’ to compare with. Trust in the management and billing process will also be a key consideration.

Paul King, Chief Executive of the UK Green Building Council said:

“This research puts a nail in the coffin of the perception that consumers won’t like community scale green schemes, such as district heating and waste-to-energy plants. There are significant environmental and financial benefits to providing such integrated infrastructure at a community scale, reducing both carbon emissions and energy bills.”

The research is part of an ongoing task group, run by the UK Green Building Council and the Zero Carbon Hub, which is assessing the key barriers to delivery of sustainable district infrastructure and which will be publishing recommendations to overcome these in January 2010.

Neil Jefferson, Chief Executive of the Zero Carbon Hub said:

“Reducing carbon emissions is about people, it’s about changing the way we use and consume our planet’s resources, so it’s encouraging news that the British public is ready and willing to embrace different ways of heating their homes and disposing of their household waste.

“On appropriate sites, community heating networks could provide a key component of low and zero carbon homes, so it’s very encouraging to see there is genuine public interest in developing community heating networks as part of broader green infrastructure schemes at the local level.

“The results of the research are very positive, but we also acknowledge that the public still has some questions, concerns and conditions which the Zero Carbon Hub will take forward and explore further as part of its work programme to understand how we can best engage consumers with the benefits of low and zero carbon homes.”

Tony Moseley, task group member, Southwark Council said

“While they might not be in a position to fund or manage these networks, local authorities can take a real leadership role in the deployment of infrastructure. In driving the provision of new sustainable infrastructure, for example in regeneration schemes, opportunities can be created for new mechanisms for investment and regeneration can be used as a driver to decarbonise surrounding existing stock and even the grid. This shows that the public, and those served by this infrastructure, welcome its delivery and see a clear role for local authorities to protect their interests.”

Marco Marijewycz, task group member, E.ON said:

“This research has dispelled the myth that people don’t want heat networks or community energy schemes. We now see that with just a little explanation, heat networks are seen to deliver cost and environmental benefits, especially where local authorities work in partnership with energy experts in the private sector. The local authorities help guarantee a customer base for heat, making the schemes viable on a larger scale, which maximises ‘carbon bangs for buck’”


For further information contact:

  • UK-GBC - 020 7291 9948
  • NHBC Foundation - 01908 746 739

Notes to Editors

The report is available to download from the NHBC Foundation website at:

1) Research Methodology

The research process involved two main phases of work with consumers:

  • A national survey, designed by Icaro Consulting with a representative sample of 1,074 adults aged 18+ in Great Britain, in October 2009. The questionnaire, using explanatory text and graphical representations about sustainable community infrastructure, was designed to capture both consumers’ spontaneous reactions as well as their responses to detailed information on each of the various constituent elements.
  • Two focus groups, conducted in Reading, with both future home buyers aged 25-40, and existing home owners aged 25-65. The discussions involved both spontaneous, top of mind reactions (indicative of how people might react on hearing about the idea for the first time) as well as more reflective and deliberative debate (indicative of how they might respond as more information becomes available on what it would mean for them as homeowners).

The research developed a consumer segmentation model which demonstrates three key groups – ‘Early Adopters’ (accounting for 17% of the public), ‘Serious Doubters’ (15%), and a third, majority group of ‘Contingent Adopters’ (68%) who are largely positive but need further details on the practical implications for their household and neighbourhood.

2) District Heating

European comparison: Percentage of heat supplied through district systems:

  • Iceland – 94%
  • Russia – 63%
  • Denmark – 60%
  • Sweden – 55%
  • Lithuania – 50%
  • Finland – 49%
  • Poland – 47%
  • Romania – 30%
  • Latvia – 29%
  • Germany – 13%
  • UK - 2%

Southampton’s extensive district heating network was established in 1986 and now consists of 11 km of insulated heating mains. It has over 40 consumers including the Civic Centre, a hospital, four hotels, the Southampton Solent University, West Quay shopping complex, an ASDA supermarket, and over 400 flats (including two major new developments by Barratt Homes). Notably, over 95 percent of its revenue is from private consumes, and district cooling for offices and hotels has been added as a service.

The scheme delivers annual CO2 reductions of approximately 10,000 tonnes and it has received support from the local authority through the planning system - with new city centre developments now required to justify why they should not connect to the district energy supply. The City Council is using its new planning powers, and working with private sector partners to expand the system elsewhere in the city, including the strategic planning of heating mains as a utility for regeneration master plans.

London has approximately 100 decentralised energy projects currently in development.

3) Key features of district heating include:

  • Heat is supplied from a community energy centre to each individual property, via a series of underground pipes in the street
  • Individual properties do not have individual boilers, nor are they connected individually to the gas network
  • Individual properties still have individual heating controls, which can be set for the home overall and also for each room
  • Individual properties are metered so that they are charged on the basis of what they use
  • Heat is available at all times of the day
  • Costs for using heat are typically lower over the long term, but bills might not go down immediately because of the initial cost of the infrastructure
  • The system is very efficient at the community level, with heat transferred between homes, businesses, leisure centres and schools at different times of the day, according to demand (which is often different across the various buildings).

4) Key features of sustainable community water systems might include:

  • There will be three water supplies into your home. Hot water, 'mains' water (as now) and water for non-drinking uses (specifically for toilet flushing, garden watering and washing machines, etc)
  • Drinking water from the mains supply is purified to the same standards as now. However, water for flushing toilets, washing machines and watering gardens would come from filtered rainwater (which is captured locally and then stored underground)
  • Another possibility is to recycle water that goes down the sink (e.g. from showers), treating this and reusing for flushing toilets, washing machines and watering gardens
  • Individual properties are metered so that they are charged on the basis of how much water they use
  • To reduce the chance of flooding, there will be more permeable paving and green spaces to allow rainfall to be absorbed into the ground when it falls (rather than being channelled directly into rivers and streams which may later overflow)

5) Key features of community waste schemes include:

  • Waste and recycling is no longer collected from the kerbside or wheelie bins.
  • Waste and recycling chutes, connected to an underground pipe network, are provided very close to where people live (e.g. in buildings, or at street collection points) and – because the system is underground – these collection points are smaller in size than existing containers on the street).
  • Residents must first separate waste in their kitchen into 3 types - recyclable waste (e.g. glass, cans, plastic, card, paper), organic waste (food or garden waste) and non recyclable waste (rubbish).
  • These waste and recycling points are emptied regularly by a vacuum process using the pipe network
  • The waste and recycling can be taken straight to a local energy centre through the pipes, to be used as fuel which can be returned to heat and power residents homes.