Network headroom, engineering upgrades and public acceptance (NEUPA): Connecting engineering for heat system change to consumers and citizens

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: The Centre for Environmental Policy


The project will provide the UK's first 'map' of network capacity and headroom and consider case studies in different parts of the UK in detail. It will also assess how heat and cooling demand might change in future using weather data. Based on all this the project will evaluate the nature of potential disruption in local communities created by heat system decarbonisation. It will engage with citizens to investigate their perceptions and expectations of heat system change.

There are significant information gaps associated with the capacity of local energy distribution networks (gas, electricity and heat) to deliver energy for low carbon heating and cooling. Competing options include converting the gas grid to hydrogen, expanding electrification using heat pumps, and district heating. A key consideration is the nature of any constraints on the capacity of local networks, in particular the ability to deliver energy needed to meet peak demands, which can be far higher than average during extreme cold spells and perhaps in future during heat waves. Lack of both data and understanding of what disruption might be associated with heat system change are serious impediments to policy action on heat system decarbonisation. Research commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change analysis of a net zero target for 2050 concludes that utilisation of distribution network capacity is poorly understood. The project sets out to overcome this gap in information by evaluating what is known about distribution network condition based upon information reported by network companies and through interviews and surveys involving industry participants. It will compare electricity and gas networks and also consider district heating.

Consumer acceptability of system change and local level disruption is also central to low carbon heat, yet it is similarly poorly understood and seldom linked to engineering detail at street or neighbourhood level. The project will use deliberative social science research to explore the expectations of citizens to the changes and disruption to local environments that might be associated with competing alternatives for delivering low carbon heating (and cooling) services to homes and businesses.

Recent work on heat decarbonisation is strong with respect to assessment of end use technology options (i.e. what goes into the buildings) and on supply energy vectors (which energy source is utilised). However, it is weak on engineering, economic and social assessment of infrastructure needs and trade-offs - particularly for the 'last mile' or distribution network infrastructures that bring energy services to homes and businesses. This project is explicitly focused on this 'last mile' of infrastructure and combines engineering evaluation and constraint modelling with social science insights from public engagement with proposed heating solutions and their associated disruption(s), to assess the impacts of heat system change and what people think about them.

Planned Impact

NEUPA will help the policy, academic and industrial communities to understand our gas, electricity and heat networks. This includes infrastructure constraints, upgrade requirements and the requisite size, key characteristics, and public acceptability of future heat and cooling provision technologies. NEUPA will engage wider stakeholders by disseminating through traditional and online media. It will provide information about the capacity of local networks to provide low carbon heating and cooling, recognising the operational characteristics of technologies, the service choices made by people and businesses, and policy goals. In particular it will disseminate new information about disruption to local neighbourhoods for particular technology mixes, alongside in-depth understanding of how local communities are likely to view such changes. In this way the project will help and facilitate governments and the regulator in formulating markets and regulations to direct investment and take strategic choices about infrastructure and incentives.

The research will benefit academics across energy-related engineering, economics, environmental and social sciences disciplines, as well as stakeholder bodies involved in informing and taking decisions about energy systems renewal, such as National Infrastructure Commission and Committee on Climate Change. The project is partnering directly with BEIS, Greater London Authority, Scottish Government, Welsh Government, CCC and network companies. We will engage with these organisations (and others) directly through policy briefings, workshops and roundtables to give them a closer connection to our research. Policy users will be involved from the outset, ensuring the research is properly co-designed, through a Steering Group.

Policy briefs on each key topic will be produced, together with synthesis reports, and a wrap-up dissemination workshop. Reports will be launched through the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College in collaboration with Strathclyde, Cardiff and the partner bodies above. For a wider audience, the project will use the Energy Futures Lab energy blogs and social media, as well as coverage and guest editorials and media articles in UK and International press. The project aims to identify those technologies which have commercial potential and work with our technology transfer team at Imperial College Innovations, the Imperial Cleantech Cluster, and the FLEXIS project in South Wales, to identify partners and support development. The models of heat and future cooling demand developed here will be made available through the open-access platform, making it easy for others to use and benefit from the methodological advances, and helping to drive wider uptake of UK science. The project will also establish a programme of outreach events, webinars, case studies and networking opportunities focused on wider engagement participation between academia and local, national and international business communities.
International agencies such as the International Energy Agency have also engaged with the research team on low carbon heating and cooling and we will seek opportunities to engage at international forums and events. The project team are currently co-authoring the 2019 World Energy Outlook, and are in discussions to involve NEUPA's outputs in future IEA publications, ensuring a global audience for this project.

We will use the network and platform of Energy Futures Lab to maximize impact and visibility internally and externally. For young people, engagement activities will focus upon school visits, using our facilities to illustrate the key drivers behind the programme, and promote the role of science, engineering and social sciences in solving complex societal problems. We will also contribute to the Imperial & Exhibition Road Festival and Fringe, ESRC Festival of Social Science and EPSRC festivals. Early career researchers will be fully engaged in all activities.


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