Co-creating visions and pathways for integrated urban heat systems

Transforming the heat system is an urgent priority for the UK. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisor to the UK Government, has stated that immediate action is required if we are to radically reduce carbon emissions produced by the provision of heat and meet our national and international climate-change targets.

In addition to the pressing need to mitigate climate change, fuel poverty affects 11% of households in England; we need to find ways to provide affordable heating in the face of rising energy prices. The demand for cooling is also likely to rise substantially in the coming years in response to a warmer climate and growing thermal comfort requirements, which will increase energy use and add to carbon emissions. Cities could provide the key to transforming our heat systems. Around 80% of people in the UK live in urban areas. There are many decentralised technology options available for moving from fossil fuel-based heat provision to affordable low-carbon systems, including household technologies such as heat pumps and biomass stoves, networks that provide heat from renewable and waste heat sources, and the replacement of natural gas with hydrogen in the gas grid.

Previous modelling of urban heat systems has focussed on understanding potential uptake of just one of these technology types, and has often assumed that there would be one ‘system architect’. In reality, an integrated mix of technologies will be needed, and the system will contain multiple decision-makers.

My research will help incorporate this complexity into models that can be used to explore various heat-system scenarios. What mix of technologies would most benefit the multiple stakeholders in cities? Where should we invest in a city if we want to reduce fuel poverty? And how do the many decision-makers involved – including local authorities, gas and electricity networks operators, and central government – make decisions now to ensure that our heating and cooling needs are met for the next 30 years?

Through this fellowship, I will produce the frameworks, tools and models to help answer these questions. The findings will inform the long-term energy planning that the radical transformation of our urban heat systems will require. By applying the methods of complexity science to the heat system (by considering interactions between different sub-systems, e.g housing and energy), considering the spatial diversity of the evolution of demand for heating and cooling over the next 30 years (in response to drivers such as climate change and population growth), and exploring the integration of different technology options within a city (some technologies may operate centrally, others at the household level; they may vary by different fuel types e.g. electricity, gas or direct provision of heat), this work will empower effective, informed, forward-looking decision-making among city stakeholders.

The methods and tools developed in this research will be applied to two UK case-study cities in order to co-produce visions of future urban energy systems (for example, where in a city different technologies could be deployed, and what benefits this might bring) and identify pathways towards those systems (i.e. who would need to act, and by when). The tools themselves will be co-created with stakeholders (such as local authorities, energy network operators, communities and policy-makers) so that they reflect these stakeholders’ objectives (across economic, social and environmental metrics) and the reality of their decision-making processes.

A subsequent evaluation process will help to identify ways in which these innovative participatory complex-systems modelling approaches could be applied to other energy-system challenges, multiplying the capacity of this research not only to contribute to the academic study of energy systems, but to shape the future of urban heat systems in the UK and beyond.

Publications and outputs

BASU, S., S. E. BALE, C., WEHNERT, T. & TOPP, K. 2019. A complexity approach to defining urban energy systems. Cities, 95, 102358.

Project website