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How a data-driven approach can increase confidence in district heating

Large-scale centralized heating networks will play an important role in the UK’s plans to reduce CO2 emissions. Innovative metering and billing technology will be needed to address concerns about changes in the way we use and pay for energy.

In pursuit of its carbon neutrality targets, the UK government is exploring more environmentally friendly yet cost-efficient ways to create innovative infrastructure in urban areas.

The substantial contribution that energy consumption in residential buildings makes to CO2 emissions means that clean heating technologies must reach at least 50 percent of sales by 2030 to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. District heating is considered the answer to many concerns:

it offers better pollution management compared to individual solutions, offers competitive prices and generates one of the lowest carbon footprints. In view of the advantages that large-scale heat networks entail, what is necessary to ensure that projects are also consumer-friendly?

District or municipal heating is nothing new, certainly not in the Scandinavian countries that have been using it for years. While the UK is still largely in the electrification phase and trying to phase out gas, district heating will become a much more viable solution in the future, with a denser population and an increasing number of new flats.

Following the model already implemented in Northern Europe, efficient heating networks with centralized hot springs are likely to improve the lives of millions of people.

However, apart from the logistical issues surrounding the physical design and construction of an underground heat network, there are other challenges that building owners and suppliers must take into account.

For example, from a billing perspective, residents can’t choose which company to sign up with if they move into an apartment building – all the heating comes from one company that installed the system in the basement.

Therefore, such heating systems leave consumers little choice or flexibility with regard to their energy supplier. Amid growing debate from residents, watchdog organizations and suppliers, the UK government introduced new regulations late last year.

These legislative changes require utility companies to ensure that customer bills are accurately calculated based on tenants’ heating, cooling or hot water consumption using installed metering devices.

As the industry will continue to grow as a result of the decarbonisation of heat targets, it is vital to have a system in place that enables smooth and real-time communication between properties, the district heating supplier, energy suppliers and residents.

With further plans to expand heat networks in the UK, district and municipal heating suppliers will need more capabilities to provide efficient service to multiple households and to process a variety of data including processing various billing charges, payments and incoming questions.

This may sound daunting, especially with many tools and systems that need to be coordinated on a daily basis. Managing databases of remote heating meters, customer portals and the masses of information associated with them requires an integrated approach.

Such a comprehensive solution not only provides end users with full access to a flexible, self-service portal with full transparency on bills and payments, but also reduces administrative burdens and costs for energy organizations.

For example, having access to timely meter readings and the delivery of invoices automatically reduces the stress of invoicing at the end of the month and speeds up the processing time of complaints.

In addition, the fact that all aspects of the business can be managed in one place makes it easier to provide the best maintenance, with features such as scheduling technical visits.

Seamless services enabled with a centralized platform have the power to significantly improve the customer experience. Using real-time data gives customers insight into their tariff and meter usage, informs better decisions and helps identify the cheapest usage time.

Indeed, self-service portals allow consumers to choose their preferred rate, set up payments for utility bills and manage payment plans.

An intelligent platform also makes it possible to monitor various services, including hot water, electricity and sewage, allowing accurate reading of consumption and losses.

On the other hand, collecting all customer data through timely meter readings in one place also improves invoice visibility. In view of recent economic volatility, it is essential to treat customers’ financial vulnerability as a priority.

It will become increasingly important for both suppliers and customers to be able to forecast and track payment plans in order to gain better transparency of finances.

Both suppliers and customers will benefit from an integrated platform. While end users can benefit from greater visibility and flexibility of rates and payments, providers can achieve a seamless customer experience with accurate measurements and real-time insight into potential customer vulnerabilities.

The question is no longer if, but when, centrally distributed heat will be introduced into the UK.

Neighborhood systems will soon become a reality for millions of British residents as we move towards reaching net zero. By adopting an integrated and data-driven approach, suppliers can future-proof companies and