You are here

Communising Energy: Power to the People!

From, February 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Part of domestic living in Britain is receiving hot water and heating from a boiler that serves one property alone. In fact, around 93% of households have a single appliance in homes where typically the number of occupants per household is around 2.5. Natural gas is the majority fuel by far for all heat needs within homes and non-domestic buildings.

So, where's this going beyond pointing out that gas is king and there is a boat load of heating and hot water boilers per person? I hope to make a brief case for the immediate need to do away with individual boilers, replacing them as best practicable with a more communised form of heating, the district heating network (DHN).

The case against the crap we call cutting edge technology

Fuel, more specifically natural gas, is running out fast in Britain, and despite our dependence on a finite resource we desperately rely upon for industry and manufacturing, we burn the stuff in our own homes, regulated by nothing more than the ability to pay. The utilisation of renewable energy sources for heat production in Britain is, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change "around 15%... in 2012; this equates to 2.3% of total heat demand" (DECC, National Renewables Statistics), a figure that flies in the face of a common misconception that problems around resources and emissions control are being adequately addressed by technology. Furthermore, whilst the trend for using renewable sources of energy have continued to impress for electricity production, for heat production less so. In 1990, renewables represented a replacement of around one million tonnes of oil for both electricity and heat production, a third of that figure being for heat. In 2012 renewables replaced around 7 million tonnes of oil for electricity production and one million tonnes heat; considering most energy use is for heat production overall, development in renewable energy for heat production has seen the smallest change in face of the biggest need.

Successive governments have allowed individual gas burning boilers to remain the standard in homes and non-domestic properties, this has played a massive role in running down finite fuel resources, as well as increasing carbon emissions. Indeed, the current model has been counter-productive to the aims of carbon reduction and renewable energy targets. Perhaps not by pure coincidence, it also creates millions of pounds worth of tax every year for the Inland Revenue, something that is projected to increase year on year with the current model for heat production. It may be no surprise to learn that heat production for buildings and industry is around half of the total energy demand, producing somewhere between half and, if you can believe Edward Davey, Secretary of State for the DECC, a third of all carbon emissions.

The political decision: costing lives and bleeding us dry

There is no easy answer to the problems that we face in Britain when it comes to heating and hot water. Fuel poverty is a growing reality, resulting in people freezing to death in their own homes. According to the Office for National Statistics "an estimated 31,100 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2012/13 – a 29% increase compared with the previous winter." Genuine fear or inability to meet the growing costs of fuel is killing off thousands of elderly people, typically women over 75 years old.

The current model of heat production, one which is predominantly based the ownership of individual boilers, arguably reflects our own social mores, and certainly that of the politics of free-market Britain. Individualistic, temporary dressed as permanent, high maintenance, costly, wasteful and polluting. Responsibility lies with bill payer, creating situations where the poorest have to make choices between heat or no heat. Keeping warm may not be an issue for the well heeled; if you have the cash you afford all the latest money saving appliances - the poorest are on token meters and pay a higher tariff than those who pay quarterly bills.

Making someone rich

According to AMA Research, the UK heating market was worth in the region of £951 million (Manufacturers Selling Price) in 2012 and is projected by 2016 to be worth "around £1.06 billion at MSP, which would represent an increase of 11% compared to the market size in 2012." Obviously many factors play into this forecast, essentially relying on an upturn in the economy and stimulus from government initiatives such as the Green Deal, however the overall medium to long term market will become increasingly influenced by more critical factors such as fuel prices and legislation on CO2 emissions.

The heating spares industry, supplying replacement parts and additional controls was by AMA Research's estimation worth "£321 million at merchants selling prices in 2012." The spares market is forecast for massive growth, with more complex controls being constantly developed as well as a growth in renewables. However due to cheap generic copies often made in sweatshop conditions by workers paid a pittance, then sold on through untaxed online shops, getting a handle on the actual size of this fast growing manufacturing industry is proving extremely difficult. In short, the heating and spares industries are massive and even though there's been a slow down due to the economic slump, they are getting bigger by the year.

That's what little boys are made of... poison in a box

The amount of raw materials ploughed into manufacturing to produce an individual boiler for almost every home and non-domestic property in Britain is phenomenal. Technology has moved on so that appliances contain at least one, usually several printed circuit boards (PCBs). Whilst discussion continues as to how best to secure a constant, affordable fuel supply to Britain, little or no mention is made of the reliance on the many other rare and finite resources used to make the components in these appliances. PCB's contain a massive array of metals, often heavy and potentially carcinogenic, including gold, silver, copper, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, beryllium, tin, palladium, nickel - in fact complicated circuitry can contain around 50 elements from the periodic table, often very rare and extracted in unstable countries with corrupt and brutal governments. Take beryllium for instance, this rare metal is commercially mined in only three countries, China, USA and Kazakhstan. Boiler circuit boards are, on the whole, notoriously unreliable. Planned obsolescence is unnecessary; prone to water damage and with every electrical component in some way connected to the PCB's housed on the boiler, even the failure of an external control can burn out the circuit board.

So, these unreliable components, made from materials that are mined in countries that are often politically unstable and under brutal conditions as well as being environmentally destructive, are fitted to as many boilers that can be sold. Once the component needs replacing, the part either becomes part of landfill or is recycled, a euphemistic term where nearly all electronic waste is shipped to Asia or Africa often to be stripped for the composite metals. The stripping process is usually worse than the manufacturing for release of carcinogens and heavy metals. Rivers, ponds and paddy fields have been found containing poisonous levels of heavy metals from recycling, shortening the lives of some of the poorest and most exploited people. Even in the rich West, 70% of heavy metals found in U.S landfill waste ground is from electronic waste, which includes printed circuit boards. All this to supply us with devices in which to burn our depleting stock of natural gas - a process that is at the heart of climate change, with "nearly half the energy we use in the UK is used for heating of one sort or another. And of the total of 906 TWh of natural gas consumed in the UK in 2011, 52% was used to provide heat for buildings and industry.This compares to the 34% burned in power stations to make electricity." (DECC: The Future of Heating: Meeting the challenge, March 2013).

It's all in the PEF

As well as efficiency and renewables, the third key consideration in any future model is the non-renewable primary energy factor (PEF). This is the initial energy outlay in relation to the volume of energy produced. The aim is to have the lowest primary energy input in relation to the highest volume of heat supplied. So, manufacturing and supplying the millions of individual boilers under the current model requires an infinitely greater energy input than a DHN system. Even if the running efficiency level of individual boilers and DHN's were equal, consideration should be made to the PEF - consider the non-renewable energy consumed in the surveying, mining, forging, transport, manufacturing, packaging, installation, gas transportation network (the pipes in the streets) and so on, and that is before an appliance is up and running. The energy used to produce just one gas combi boiler for a single person living in a bedsit far outstrips the PEF share within a DHN. Running costs need to be factored in - no renewable forms heat and power come entirely free.

In Britain, DHN's currently use 38% renewable fuels - usually from bio-mass - and from an emissions angle, is regarded to be least polluting form of heat production and distribution, with electricity supplied for heating coming out worse, even above coal (Corelation of PEF and CO2, Euroheat & Power: District Heating in Buildings, 2011). And according to another report, this one to the DECC, "we calculate that a district heating network covering 250,000 households may save between 0.25 Mt CO2 and 1.25 Mt CO2 relative to conventional heating systems annually, dependent on the fuel used and the carbon intensity of centralised electricity production" (Faber Maunsell: The Potential and Costs of District Heating Networks, 2009). The PEF is an important tool to understanding just how one form of heat production compares with another. Take wind turbines for instance, if in an either/or scenario the PEF for building and installing a wind turbine is higher than harnessing existing geo-thermal heat (as in DHN's in Southampton or Paris), it may be viewed that turbines are not appropriate in this case. Simply put, a chosen technology has to pay its way. In a different scenario, it may be viewed sensible to harness both wind and geothermal.

Collective responsibility

From a more social angle, creating a solution for today's heat problems doesn't necessarily required reinventing the wheel. There is never a one size fits all answer to heat production and this is key to understanding what is possible and what isn't practical. We all have the same needs - power and heat - but how we deliver those services may depend on where you live. Cities have a completely different potential to a lone isolated farm cottage. In the Shetland Isles, they have incorporated wind turbines in their DHN system and have reduced their fuel costs between 30-40% - roughly in line with their carbon reduction.

From a anarcho-syndicalist point of view, having collective responsibility over resources is important, as well as delivering services on a needs basis; creating a system of heat networks using whatever is best to hand to deliver the service that improves both CO2 efficiency and the renewable fuel factor whilst being controlled and run by the communities that use the service. Collective solutions for collective problems are at the heart of socialist thought, fortunately for us on this occasion, there is a collective solution out there that has a proven track record over the individualistic model most of us live with at present.

A possible solution

Based on existing technology, district heating networks (DHN) offer the best possible solution. In it's most basic form, district heating is a central boiler plant and pipe network supplying multiple properties. These systems have been around in Britain since the fifties but today only represents 2% of national heat production, largely because of the outlay in creating these networks. Things have moved on from the 1950's and today's DHN's are often cogeneration (creating power and heat) or trigeneration (creating power, heat and cooling for air-conditioning). Ideally networks will include other heat and power sources such as industry, harnessing the free surplus heat created in industrial processes, transferring this free heat into the network for use elsewhere. Other forms of heat and power production can be linked into the network such as wind turbines, geo-thermal, ground and air source and solar thermal arrays; in short, whatever works best. Furthermore, energy can be saved and used when needed using accumulators. This plays an important role if solar arrays are relied on.

Using renewables and waste heat doesn't just lower carbon emission - in a capitalist economy it lowers people's bills, something perhaps of little concern in a communist society. And like carbon emissions, just how much heating bills are lowered depends on factors such as the system design and fuel used, however according to the Combined Heat and Power Association responding to a survey of DHN's, "heating bills are reduced by as much as 50%... an average of 18% for domestic customers and 13% for commercial customers."

Outside of Britain, DHN's are widespread. Whole cities are served, integrating homes with industry and non-domestic buildings, harnessing heat and creating both heat, air conditioning and power. Even here in Britain, the average size scheme has over 650 dwellings. Feasibility studies invariably point out the greatest hurdle to development being the installation cost, however, as seen recently in Cambridge plans for an eco-friendly power station were scrapped after the city council decided there wasn't enough money to made. But isn't this the point? Money is consumption; if what Cambridge council value is profit, then why spend £25,000 on a feasibility study for a project that is in essence designed to minimise a financial return? But this is what we're up against; lip service and back handers. The governments pledge in the 2008 Climate Change Act is to "reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050," and professes to be legally binding. As long as we are still allowed to burn gas in the home, this target may reached for no other reason than we've ran out of the damn stuff.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.