The National:

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A KEY theme of my articles on the transition to a wellbeing economic approach is that many of the policies Scotland needs have been successfully implemented elsewhere. We know they work and although they may seem radical in the UK, they are often standard practice abroad. One such example is "district heating". Let’s look at Denmark as an example. 

If Norway is Scotland's twin, Denmark is Scotland’s cousin

Denmark, a northern European country with a population size very close to Scotland’s, does not have Scotland's natural wealth but its GDP is a massive £12,559 per head larger than the UK’s. Denmark has been placing first or second in the World Happiness Index for over a decade and it comes fourth in the Scotianomics Wellbeing Economy Index.

District heating versus your old boiler

Your home probably has a boiler. It's probably gas, which makes your monthly gas bill around £100.00 and it's extremely damaging to the planet. Replacement, including labour, will cost around £3000.00 – you may also have a maintenance contract. What if there was an environmentally friendly, efficient, low cost, practically zero-maintenance way to heat all the homes in your town or city and eradicate fuel poverty? There is, it's called district heating and it's been around for centuries but the latest iteration of the technology should change the way you think about heating. 

READ MORE: Scotland's first Passivhaus social housing development is completed

District heating explained

  • Power plants produce heat/steam to power turbines and produce energy – even nuclear plants are technically steam engines.
  • In most plants, the heat generated is lost in the system.
  • District heating uses the heat or steam from power plants to heat communities.
  • Steam is piped to customers to heat their homes. As it cools back into water, it is piped back to the plant to be heated again.
  • This is one of the best and most affordable ways to cut carbon emissions. 
  • However, only 12% of buildings globally are heated this way.

Copenhagen: The world capital of district heating

Approximately 64% of Danish homes are connected to district heating systems, making it one of the world's most energy efficient nations. Denmark has six large central district-heating areas located around large cities, with 400 smaller decentralised district heating areas covering rural communities. Copenhagen itself is home to the world’s largest district heating system, which covers 98% of buildings in the city. 

The energy used to run this system is generated in combined heat and power plants (cogeneration). Cogen plants take rubbish and burn it (highly efficiently) to produce energy. It's not exactly clean energy, but Copenhagen’s cogen plant captures 12 tonnes of CO2 a day and district heating from waste has considerably lower CO2 emissions than the gas it would replace. In Scotland, we will be able to run district heating systems on wind and tidal energy in the future. This will significantly improve our environmental wellbeing, cut costs and make heating more affordable for homes and businesses alike. Energy bills as a percentage of household income in Scotland is 4.46% but in Copenhagen, it's just 2.7%.

READ MORE: Wha's like us? Common values between Scotland and Denmark could be priceless

CopenHill – heating, skiing and climbing!  

Opened in 2017, CopenHill, the world's most efficient Cogen power station, will be your new favourite power station. Yes, I know people don't usually have favourite power stations. It heats most of Copenhagen and its design, which incorporates a massive ski slope and even climbing walls, has become a major tourist and leisure attraction, winning World Building of the Year 2021.  

CopenHill produces power for use in buildings and heat which is directed into the district heating system to heat buildings and provide hot water. It burns some 550,000 tonnes of waste per year. Sometimes, it has to import waste from other countries, including 15-20,000 tonnes of waste from the UK which would be burnt less efficiently or sent to British landfill sites.

Would it work elsewhere?

New York still uses an older iteration of district heating, with around 105 miles of pipes servicing 1500 buildings in Manhattan. It can and does work in Scotland too, where 84% of energy use in homes is used to heat space or water. However, only 1.5% of heat supplied in Scotland comes through district heating networks. The Scottish Government has a target to increase this to 8% by 2030 but the UK Government controls energy policy with tunnel vision on expanding nuclear power. 

Orkney community heating

Heat Smart Orkney is a district heating system, funded by the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge Fund which supplies heat to 70 properties. The project saw a drop in fuel usage of 4700 litres of oil, 8000 kg of coal and wood and 20.4MWh of electricity, proving the environmental sustainability of such projects. Customer retention and satisfaction reached over 98%, with 20% of customers reporting a reduction in their fuel bills.

Thinking about national wellbeing

Choosing wellbeing, rather than maximising shareholder profit, as the central socioeconomic philosophy of a nation would change the solutions we use to address Scotland’s problems. District heating is just one of a myriad of solutions that seem radical, even fanciful in the UK but are standard in nations who have sufficient self determination to start the journey towards implementing the wellbeing economic approach.

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the CEO of Business for Scotland, the chief economist at the wellbeing economics think tank Scotianomics, the founder of the Believe in Scotland campaign and the author of Scotland the Brief.