sustainability technology

Lithuania’s renewable heat revolution

In the government’s latest public attitudes tracker, they asked about district heat networks. Local heat networks are proposed as part of shifting UK housing onto sustainable forms of heat – instead of having your own boiler in your home, you would tap into a network that provides heat and hot water to your neighbourhood. Fewer than 3 out of 10 Britons have heard of heat networks.

That’s not surprising. Just under 2% of homes in the UK are connected to district heating systems. That figure is around 4% in the US, though much higher in countries that have valued collective services more. It was popular in the USSR, with Russia the world leader in the technology. (Hot water filled radiators, like most British people have in their homes, are a Russian invention.) Russia’s heating networks are powered almost entirely by natural gas, so local heating isn’t greener by default. But it is cheaper and more efficient than having individual boilers in every building, and so as cold countries switch to clean forms of heating, networks reduce the total amount of energy required and that makes the task much easier.

Lithuania has put its heat networks at the heart of its climate change strategy. They were first built at scale in the country during post WW2 reconstruction. As war-damaged cities were rebuilt, they took the opportunity to add heating infrastructure, and this preference for networked heat and hot water was eventually rolled out across every city and town. With 55% of homes connected to a heat grid, today Lithuania is in the top five globally for using district heat, in rankings that are dominated by Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

There have already been significant changes to the power sources of Lithuania’s heat. It was originally powered by coal or heating oil. Then it switched to cheap Russian gas. A third transition is now underway as it moves onto biomass, with the country planning a 100% shift away from fossil fuels for heat.

Alarm bells will be ringing at this point for some people, at the mention of biomass. As described in previous posts, there’s good and bad biomass and it’s highly contextual. Lithuania has extensive forest cover and a well established forestry sector, so it is able to meet its own biomass needs locally. Nevertheless, the authorities are wary of becoming over-reliant on biomass. Having transitioned away from gas, government subsidies for biomass are being withdrawn and replaced with other incentives that reduce the need for wood.

For example, substantial investments are being made in insulation, including insulated pipes for the networks, to reduce overall demand. Solar thermal systems are now feeding into the networks and providing more of the hot water, especially in the summer months. Boilers are being upgraded to provide combined heat and power, which is more efficient. Where renewable energy is available, heat pumps are also being used.

We’re going to be hearing a lot more about district heating in Britain, which will look different in our own context. It’s still a pretty unfamiliar technology, but for evidence of what it can do and the role in can play in sustainable heat, we need to look to places like Lithuania.

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