Consumer Protection Needed for Heat Networks – Which?

In the wake of the UK Government’s Heat Strategy and subsequent investment in heat mapping, feasibility studies and heat networks “the need for the UK’s district heating industry to be properly regulated has been emphasised by a survey from leading consumer watchdog, Which?

“The watchdog has called on the British government to reconsider allowing the UK’s emerging district heat market to operate without regulation, after research revealed that many customers feel ripped off and confused by contracts they cannot escape from.”

In the UK, regulation has hardly kept energy companies on track but consumers are likely to seek some protection when committing to long term connections with sole suppliers of heat. My experience of networks in Sheffield suggests this to be the case. Even if the product is good, the price stable and the infrastructure sound, consumers (led, often, by their insurers interest in liabilities) will seek protection. The cost of this will be borne by the end-user without doubt and this might mean some marginally economic schemes will fall by the wayside.

The report, unveiled yesterday, said some district heat providers effectively create monopolies because properties linked into the networks cannot switch suppliers if they are unhappy with the service. This is, in most cases, fact. Many UK heat networks have heat supplied from one source, or one supplier. Only when you start to see integrated heat networks with multiple technologies and suppliers will you see genuine competition that will self-regulate. Heat networks are a long way from that position.

The news, which comes just at a time when the Association for Decentralised Energy is pushing its new code of practice, called Heat Trust. Around 210,000 homes in the UK are currently connected to the networks and this is expected to rise to eight million by 2030 as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the heat sector.