District Heating in Bristol Succeeds Where the Renewable Heat Incentive Fails


In 2016, Bristol launched a low-carbon heat programme that would see district heating implemented in the city’s Redcliffe area. The Bristol Heat Network now supplies over 1,000 council houses with heat from gas CHP or biomass plants. On 30 January 2019, the programme announced its first commercial contract with a developer who will provide heat to an additional 375 homes. The Bristol Heat Network is a major step towards the city’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030.

Renewable heat is an important component of the UK’s decarbonisation policy. The Heat Networks Investment Project is a £320m fund for district heating launched by the Government in Autumn 2018. A November 2018 report from the Energy Technologies Institute shows district heating has the potential to cut £3bn from the cost of decarbonising the UK.

Other efforts in the UK have tried to promote renewable heat. Since 2011, the UK has operated the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which provides subsidies for select renewable heat technologies. A 2018 report from the House of Commons found that over four years, around 60,000 renewable heat devices were installed, compared to 6.2 million gas boilers. The RHI scheme has been costly and has failed to change the traditional motivations for heat technology choices. In most instances, individuals replace gas boilers rather than pursue renewable heat when they modify their heating systems. The report evaluates that the Government had not developed an inclusive or flexible renewable heat strategy with the RHI. A shift away from carbon-intensive or expensive heating with fossil fuels or electricity cannot be achieved by attempting to change individuals’ technology choices with the offering of a subsidy. For renewable heat to gain traction, the Government must develop policy that combines research and development into renewable heat, industry associations, and local planning and building regulations.

The absence of integrated national renewable heat policy is an opportunity for local councils to take charge. Today, new buildings in designated zones in Bristol must be “district heating ready”. The introduction of a commercial player into the Bristol Heat Network is a positive sign that Bristol might be undergoing meaningful technological change in its energy system.

Nick Fedson MEng MSc

Nick is an analyst with an interest in energy, climate, and sustainability. Nick maintains both technical and policy interest in these areas, with an undergraduate background in mechanical engineering from the University of Bristol and a recently completed Master’s degree in Global Energy and Climate Policy from SOAS, University of London. He has completed internships in a solar energy consultancy in Brighton, a not-for-profit independent think tank in New Delhi, and in data analysis at a software company in Cambridge.