Flanders Moves Toward District Heating

  • District Energy in the News
  • 03 April 2014
  • by Flanders Today

Article published in Flanders Today


Workers install the flexible, pre-insulated heat pipes used in district heating [Photo courtesy Warmtenetwerk]
Workers install the flexible, pre-insulated heat pipes used in district heating [Photo courtesy Warmtenetwerk]
With new legislation recently adopted by the Flemish Parliament and a number of projects under way, district heating in Flanders is slowly taking off.


Waste incinerators especially interested


Unlike most northern and eastern European regions, Flanders has no real tradition in district heating. These are projects where a number of neighbouring homes are connected to a main heat source, such as a factory, and then receive their heating via a network of underground pipes.


But Flanders is about to catch up. The government recently passed amended legislation, and several district heating projects were recently launched.


One of the main reasons behind the absence of local heat distribution systems until now was the cheap and secure availability of natural gas, particularly from the Netherlands. But a growing awareness of climate change and the Kyoto and post-Kyoto targets have contributed to an increase in the use of excess heat from industrial processes and waste incineration.


Until last year, building developers were legally required to provide infrastructure that connected all units in new residential districts to the natural gas grid. Offering infrastructure for heat distribution in addition would have increased the costs for developers. Under the new law, they can choose between gas or heat.


Most existing Flemish heating distribution projects have been based on a one-producer, one-consumer model. This model made investments considerably risky – one actor pulling out could lead to an entire project no longer being profitable. Having a larger number of small, residential consumers could be a solution.


Waste incineration companies, with industrial processes that generate excess heat, have been watching the new developments closely. Paul Coomans, grid management director at gas and power grid operator Infrax, expects that petrochemical and other industries will become the main heat suppliers in the long run.


“Waste incinerators are certainly reliable suppliers, but only as long as they have environmental permits,” Coomans says. “The feed of a heat distribution grid provides some of them an extra argument to obtain new environmental permits.”


Country’s largest grid


But one of the advantages of incinerators is that they are located closer to residential areas compared to large industrial plants, so grids don’t have to extend as far. Coomans admits that’s true but points out that there are other constraints. “To exploit an incinerator on an economically sound basis, a scale of at least 100,000 tonnes per year is necessary. Many existing incinerators don’t reach this volume.”


Jan Verheyen, spokesperson for Flemish waste management agency Ovam, says their goal isn’t to export their waste because there wouldn’t be enough incineration capacity in Flanders. “At the same time,” he says, “we also don’t want to generate redundant capacity because this would stimulate the import of waste or put pressure on the recycling of materials. This way, we also limit the environmental impact of waste transports. Compared to other European countries, Flanders has very few waste transports in terms of kilometres.”


Flemish parliament member Bart Martens (SP.A) sees another option. “We could increase our efforts to realise more of these transports by railway and by ships.”


As a part of its ambition to become climate neutral by 2050, the city of Antwerp put out a tender for the construction and exploitation of a district heating grid in a new quarter, which has been dubbed the New South. With around 2,500 housing units, the local heating grid would become the country’s largest one. In addition to heating the residences, the grid would also ensure hot water supplies.


In the first few years, the New South grid will use combined heat and power units, fuelled by gas. To boost the project, the city administration will connect a nearby municipal building to the new grid. The city also conducted a number of studies about new uses of the waste heat generated by plants in its port, which constitutes the world’s second-largest petrochemical cluster.


Profit and profile


Some studies came up with innovative concepts, like transporting heat in water volumes inside ships, as an alternative to long and complex pipelines. The Antwerp petrochemical industry has a production capacity of about 1,000 megawatts in waste heat, with a temperature between 80 and 120 degrees Celsius.


Today, nothing is done with this excess heat, since the industry needs much higher temperatures for its own production chains. By collecting and commercialising this heat, the industry would be able to not only make profits, but also adopt a greener profile.


Eandis and Infrax, the two main Flemish electricity and gas distribution grid operators, were initially reluctant to embrace district heating. But both are presently involved in several studies and pilot projects. “The model with one producer and one or a few professional consumers requires only simple administration,” Coomans explains. “Working with 1,000 household consumers is a completely different picture. Metering, payment problems, moving… we grid operators are very experienced in dealing with these kinds of problems, but for an incinerator operator, for instance, they can be horrible.”


At 22 kilometres, Flanders’ largest district heating grid at present is in Bruges. But that honour will soon go to Roeselare in West Flanders. Its existing, 15-kilometre grid will be expanded to two new residential quarters. “Our supply offer can easily follow the growth of the grid,” says Koen Van Overberghe, technical director of the Mirom incinerator, which will supply the new grid. “Even after completion of the new second quarter, the grid only takes up one-third of our heat production. With the remaining heat, we produce electricity, but this is a less energy-efficient application than the direct use of the heat.”


By Koen Mortelmans


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