Heat on Tap
Central heating systems move towards greater efficiency, energy independence and renewable fuels
Lithuanians take pride in their heating system, so much so that the citizens rarely notice it. It is a well-run machine that has been the norm for the last 50 years, and this norm is district heating: a heating plant that services thousands of homes. The main advantage is efficiency.
The only time one thinks about it is once a month when the bill arrives. Lately, with the rise in fuel costs and the reliance on not-exactly-reliable natural gas suppliers, people have been thinking much more about it. But rest assured, the men and women who are responsible for heating are doing more than just thinking.
Sitting on the outskirts of the capital is heating plant No 3. The chimney can be seen from virtually anywhere in Vilnius, and the two great water-cooling towers remind one of nuclear power plants. It is a major complex, as it should be. From this plant, heat is pumped through a series of insulated pipes throughout the city.
Yet the concept is simple: water is pumped from the River Neris and treated, then pumped into two colossal boilers, enclosed in frames of various-type piping, complete with dials and whistles, which take up all the space in the very warm four storeys. The boilers bring the water to the desired temperature, 545 degrees Celsius, creating 140 bar pressure steam. The steam speeds in pipes through the wall to two titanic turbines. Then, the turbines rotate generators and the product of this process is electricity, which also is distributed. After coming out of the turbines, the steam goes to district heating water pre-heaters where cold water is heated with this hot steam to 70 to 120 degrees, depending on the outside temperature, and is distributed throughout the network.
Engineers keep tabs on the plant in a room that is both old school and new: one side has a wall full of meters, while the other side has recently upgraded computer screens, transporting you to mission control at a space shuttle launch. This plant, along with its sister heating plant, keeps the citizens warm and clean.
The key to running a modern and efficient heating system has been the dedication to developing the most modern system possible. This has not been magic. It has been hard work based on good planning from the outset.
There has been the creation of a system of national laws and EU regulations that govern the heating sector, without which there can be no real investment or motivation to modernise.
Secondly, there has been the modernisation of the heating system infrastructure.
Thirdly, there is the understanding of where the district heating sector fits into the overall energy sector, both nationally and internationally. The country has few fossil-fuel resources and relies on imported fuel from Russia to fire the heating plants, so the one major goal is to become less reliant on this source.
Fortunately for Lithuania, it is not alone. The European Union is pushing for energy independence as fast as it can. Since EU member states import half their energy supplies, and around 30 per cent from Russia, the Baltic States, now the EU’s eastern frontier, have provided an impetus and opportunity to check this reliance.
One major programme targeting this has been the EU’s Senet project, which “aspires to apply corporate social responsibility and cross-border networking of local authorities and energy associations towards rational and sustainable energy use”.
In May 2006 the project partners signed a declaration to promote energy saving and efficiency, renewable energy, the security of the energy supply, demand-side technological development, corporate social responsibility, environmental quality, economic vitality and competitiveness. Although these ideals may seem overly optimistic, they are necessary, and Lithuanian district heating has taken this very seriously.
The transformation from total energy dependence to something much lessis possible: one just has to look at Scandinavia. Sweden has declared total energy independence by 2016.
The Lithuanian District Heating Association has taken the lead in this, and although the task is formidable, there have already been concrete results.
A driving force behind this modernisation is Vytautas Stasiūnas, the president of the association. He started working in power plants straight after university in 1972. He made stops in Archangelsk and Kaliningrad, and finally returned to Vilnius in 1977, where he began working on the design for the new power station in 1983.
“From 1983 until 1988 we were working without weekends off, until the station was commissioned and running,” he recalled.
However, everything changed after independence. The country had just one heating company covering the whole country, so the first steps were planned for the privatisation of the industry. The main concern at the time was how to modernise.
Stasiūnas explained. “The world leaders in district heating are the Scandinavian countries. Denmark came to us straight after independence, and we promptly went to Denmark, visited their heating plants, and trained in modern heating plant technology.
“I also remember in 1998, on a visit to Stockholm, it was early June and the daytime temperature outside was plus eight, and at night minus three, and I noted that the hotel started to heat, which surprised me. It was heating automatically, and keeping the temperature stable inside.
“The secret? They have substations that regulate heat. Today in Vilnius, out of 6,600 connections, we have 4,900 connected to automated heat substations.”
There are 58 district heating corporations in Lithuania, operating 94 district heating systems. Connected to all this are 27,000 buildings, of which 17,000 are apartment houses, with 660,000 individual flats that house 2,000,000 people. The longest heating-main runs 23 kilometres. The district heating plants are firing one million tonnes of oil equivalent fuel per year, and the turnover is one billion litas per year.
But there is one big problem that negates the progress towards better efficiency: 96 per cent of all blocks of flats in Lithuania were built in Soviet times, and nearly all of them are in desperate need of renovation.
During the Soviet occupation, district heating was large-scale, and efficient for the times, and it kept the citizens warm in the winter. It was simple, too: whenever the first cold wind blew in from the north, the heat was switched on, and stayed on until the coming of spring.
Heat regulation inside a flat was equally simple. If it was too hot, you opened special vents beside the windows; and if that did not suffice, you opened the window. You never worried about being too cold, because the massive cast iron radiators kept you warm, even in the coldest weather.
And the cost? Earning an average of 200 rubles a month, the citizen paid an almost symbolic two rubles per month for heat.
Today in these very same flats, heating costs per month have risen to an average of around 250 litas. In fact, Lithuania spends more money heating flats than Sweden, which is farther north and has three times the population.
However, in new flats, heating costs are only 55 to 60 litas. Yet, this represents just over 10 per cent of all dwellings in Lithuania. So when hard-working citizens, whose average salary is just over 1,000 litas a month, complain, they often go straight to the top.
Stasiūnas recalled a telephone call.
“I receive a lot of phone calls for information. The day before yesterday, a former head of construction in Lithuania, who was responsible for regulating the construction of houses, called me and complained that his daughter’s December bill for heating was very high, and he noted that outside we hadn’t had a real winter yet.
“I asked him the address, and called the people responsible, and they informed me that the block is one of the poorly erected blocks of flats from the 1980s, even though it was built for high-level people, the Brezhnev-era elite.
“He had lived there, and now he lives in a new detached house, and he is surprised that for December, he paid for his 250-square-metre house the same as his daughter is paying for her 75-square-metre flat. The whole block is full of holes. If you touch the wall, the wall is cold, but you still have to pay for it.”
Efficient heating depends very much on the quality of the building. The main relevant factor for quality is insulation, and what is considered good insulation holds the temperature inside at 20 degrees when it is 20 degrees below outside. Thus, new buildings pay per square metre three times less for heat than old Soviet blocks.
Nerijus Mikalajūnas, a spokesman for Vilniaus Energija, the largest heating supplier in Lithuania, noted that district heating’s responsibilities are from the heating plants to the building, but not the condition of the building itself.
“However, we support renovation. Our aim is to supply efficient energy. To supply energy that’s wasted means we have to buy more gas for energy that people don’t need. We believe renovating blocks of flats is the objective for the next ten years.”
A survey done by Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, in association with Vilniaus Energija, compared 54 renovated blocks with 54 unrenovated blocks of equivalent sizes. The results show that, depending on how far you renovate, you save from 11 per cent with just minor renovations, to 63 per cent in cases of complete renovation.
However, convincing people of this is not so simple.
Mikalajūnas explained: “First of all, for old blocks of flats, we need the agreement of all the people living in them. For instance, in one block there are sixty flats, and how can you convince all those people? People are different, high-income people simply move out, and low-income people can’t afford the cost.
“We need to transfer experience from neighbouring countries. In the former East Germany, they’ve finished renovating all old buildings, and Poland has renovated 60 per cent of its old buildings. In Lithuania, out of 40,000 blocks of flats, we’ve renovated around 600, and out of 17,000 in Vilnius, we fixed just two.
“To reinsulate a building is relatively easy. It’s insulated from the outside, the windows, pipes and radiators are replaced, and each individual flat can regulate its heat. It costs roughly 300,000 litas for a nine-storey building.
“Unfortunately, all we can do is distribute information for people who really want to fix their flats. There are many ways to do this, but we are hoping for a state approach.
“In Poland they have done this. They have passed a law that all buildings have to be renovated, and every homeowner pays something like sixty cents per square metre a month. So if you have a sixty-square-metre flat, you pay thirty litas a month extra, and for this, they’ve managed to renovate sixty per cent of the houses fully, and almost all houses partially, since 1997.”
This begs the question: why isn’t something like this being done in Lithuania?
Firstly, there are murky factors involved. There’s the political angle, and very strong competition from natural gas companies. Lithuania’s objective is to increase the independence of the energy sector. Fuel supply and district heating systems are one part where we could do this.
However, Russia wants to connect each customer to its pipeline, and in this way, it has political influence. As a consequence, when people renovate their own flats, they often choose to disconnect from the system altogether, and only have a connection to the cold water. This involves installing a separate heating and hot water system, but at the current cost, this is an attractive option.
On the other hand, Lithuania is moving as fast as it can to improve both efficiency and the use of alternative fuels, with the express purpose of lowering heating costs for the customer. This plan naturally means importing less natural gas, and perhaps, natural gas firms aren’t exactly enthusiastic about this.
Stasiūnas explained: “We have our task, with very good support from the European Union, because the EU also wants to decrease dependence on outside sources and create its own supply.
“At the present time, out of total fuel consumption producing heat in Lithuania, we are using four million tonnes of fuel, more than eighty per cent natural gas. In the meantime, we are increasing our local fuel sources. For 2006 we got twelve per cent, for 2007 we will get nineteen per cent from local biofuel.
“We are the regional leader in this. We have very active biofuel supply companies. They have combined into an association, and we have an agreement: they are preparing the fuel and we’re firing it.
“This is good; however, we still have to improve old buildings. So this year, we’re trying to convince the parliament and other relevant institutions that when you reinsulate an old building, you’ll pay the same for heat as for a new building. There are local efforts, but a national effort, we believe, is the best way.”
Biofuel catches on
In the meantime, at heating plant No 2, the new biofuel burner is humming along. The first thing one notices is the somewhat sweet smell of wood, similar to the smell of a freshly felled tree. Jūratė Prokopovič, the communications manager, led me through the process.
“Biofuel is unloaded into a 7,000-cubic-metre bin, and we always keep a three-day reserve. Biofuel is made of bits of timber waste: bark, wood chips, thorns and branches. We also have wood industrial waste, such as sawdust and substandard or damaged wood products, and up to ten per cent of all the fuel mass is made up of grain crops, straw and flax waste.
“Biofuel is naturally moist; therefore, it’s constantly rotting. Rotting organic bacteria produce heat, and if the fuel is stationary for a long time, it can self-ignite. So we have to constantly stir it.
“The fuel is then sorted for unburnable waste, and we use a large electric magnet to take out metal. Then, the biofuel is transported on to a conveyor belt to a height of twenty-nine metres, and is dropped into the boiler feeder bunker, then to the burner. The ash is then recycled as fertiliser.”
Citizens can be forgiven for not being overly excited about biofuels, or any of the hitherto unknown developments this year in the heating sector. For instance, in Klaipėda, during the summer, water is geothermally heated.
It is hard to notice the 12 per cent biofuel usage in the district heating pipes. It is much easier to notice when the pipes are cold on a cold winter’s day. But not this year.
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