Guest contribution: The challenges of switching away from district heating in Poland

This blog intends to provide a forum for discussing the broader political and social dynamics that underpin energy vulnerability. Therefore, we will regularly host guest articles which explore the issue from academic, policy- and practitioner-led perspectives. The first such contribution is provided by Alastair Moore, a Registered Professional Planner who holds a Masters in Resource & Environmental Management from Simon Fraser University, and has a rich experience in, inter alia, Community Energy Management in Central and Eastern Europe.

Energy vulnerability up close and personal

Constructed after WWII war atop what was left of its bombed out foundations, our family home in Warsaw is undergoing a much needed energy retrofit. The antiquated heating system is original and integral to the home’s charm, but the time has come to put an end to wasteful energy use, high energy bills, thermal discomfort, and strained relations with our neighbour. We are set to sever our connection to the local district heating system and install a high-efficiency, gas-fired, condensing, dual-function boiler.

Why have we chosen this seemingly perverse course of action? The answer is complex and upon examination, provides a good example of our own energy vulnerability.

In reality, our home is one of two apartments in a single house. We have the top floor and our neighbour lives below. The house is situated in a residential neighbourhood served by a relatively inefficient coal-powered district heating system constructed as part of the post-war reconstruction effort. The house has been connected to the district heating system from day one. In the basement, which we share with our neighbour in a most haphazard manner, there is one heat energy consumption meter, one temperature regulator connected to the single heat exchanger, and one continuous heating loop that serves radiators in both apartments and the common areas. Heat energy is only delivered between mid-Autumn and mid-Spring, depending on weather conditions. For those who feel the cold more than others, sweaters and blankets are essential until ambient temperatures compel the district heating utility to turn the central boiler on.

After decades of use, the radiators in our apartment, and the pipes that connect them, have become extremely fouled and thus inefficient. Although each radiator has its own flow control valve, most have seized up or lost their handles, meaning that a wrench must be used to alter the heat level. The temperature setting on the heat-exchanger in the basement is now set to maximum, owing to significant heat losses in the distribution system.

Radiators in the apartment
Radiators in the apartment – remnants of the old heating system

Like so many challenges in life, both our neighbour and ourselves have developed coping strategies to help ameliorate the perversions in the system. Open windows are used to control indoor temperature levels as most radiators have little or no working control valves. Our neighbour dries her laundry in the common area, near the un-insulated heat supply pipes, rather than in her apartment. And up to this point, we have deferred upgrading our windows given the cost to do so, the lack of financial assistance, and the fact that the benefits will be shared with our neighbour.

The district heating utility is aware there are two separate apartments in the house and accordingly sends a monthly bill to each owner during the heating season. The bills are based on the consumption measured by the single meter and apportioned to each apartment owner according to the percentage of total floor space they occupy. The percentages used by the utility were calculated many decades ago and do not reflect current conditions in the house. Unfortunately, the district energy utility refuses to install multiple meters in our house which would likely reduce over consumption and encourage private investment.

The new gas-fired system
Original piping for the district heating system, overly hot but ideal for drying clothes

Our family’s lack of control over space heating energy costs has been a source of great frustration for many years. We have known we have been paying more than our fair share of the building’s energy bill as we do not occupy the apartment as much as our neighbour. And when we requested a more accurate metering/billing system the district energy utility insisted that it was up to our neighbour and ourselves to decide how to share the bill. Our neighbour meanwhile has been quite happy to have us subsidize her heating expenses.

After years of excessive energy consumption and high energy bills, we finally decided to disconnect from the central heating utility so that we could simply pay for our direct consumption of gas by our new, in-home, gas-fired system, which allows for individual metering. The irony of abandoning the typically more efficient centralized heating system in favour of a stand-alone space heating system is not lost on me. I have after all, argued in favour of expanding the use of district energy on more than one occasion given its many benefits (e.g. economies of scale, climate mitigation, energy resilience, renewable energy use, etc). However, a necessary pre-condition for wise energy use is the ability to pay for only that which you consume. While disconnecting from the central heating system is an unfortunate course of action to have to take, doing so has made wise energy use possible for my family.

When our retrofit is complete it will be enhanced by new argon-filled, double-glazed windows, programmable thermostats, and modern, individually controllable radiators. We will gain full control of our heating system so we can conserve energy where possible and save on bills. Also, we will have dramatically improved our indoor thermal comfort and eliminated a key point of friction between us and our neighbour. Tomorrow is an important day as the energy utility will come to physically disconnect our apartment from their system. However, we’ve just learned that our neighbour must agree to us disconnecting before we can fully sever ourselves from the district heating system.

It is clear to me that our situation is not unique and that many other people across Poland are experiencing the same challenges. In the absence of joined-up policy on district heating and building energy retrofits in Poland, I fear that opportunities for wise energy use may continue to be lost.

Alastair Moore, RPP, LEED AP (BD+C)

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