District Heating – Is it viable in Maine?

On the second day of touring businesses in Denmark, we visited Frederiksberg Forsyning. Frederiksberg Forsyning (Supply) operates four public utility services, including: district heating supply, water supply, gas supply, and waste water. Focusing on the district heating aspect of their services, I learned quickly how evident it is that Denmark is much more carbon efficient and environmentally cautious compared to the United States, specifically Maine. What was the deciding factor that lead Denmark to adopt the district heating approach? Denmark had reached a point of severe over dependency on expensive fossil fuels, low efficiency on energy distribution, and intensified air quality concerns. All of these issues were brought to their attention and needed to be resolved; it just so happened that district heating began to develop more forcefully during the same time. District heating was their solution.

Ninety-eight percent of all heating provided in Copenhagen comes from the district-heating grid. In other words, only 144 houses in the city have not joined the district heating system; now that is quite an accomplishment, attaining cooperation from a majority of the city. This district (radiant) heating approach in Denmark comes from a local supply, rather than from individual houses, as is the case in Maine. In the US, natural gas is the primary heating fuel and district heating is much less common, but it’s not to say that district heating isn’t feasible in Maine.

Renewable fuels such as biomass, the most common fuel source used for district heating, is less energy intensive than a traditional heating network. Less energy intensive results in fewer emissions exerted. District heating allows an area to be much more efficient by using local heat and fuel sources that would typically be lost or remain unused. For example, some people use heat at night and some people use it in the morning, which spreads out the use of the available heating supply. Individual houses, on the other hand, typically do not use the heating supply consistently throughout a 24-hour period, leaving the rest to remain unused or lost. In Denmark, their total heat loses from the power plant to the farthest point in Denmark is only 1-2%. Compare that with heat loses in the United States, which are typically around 15% of energy lost in transmission, it is evident that Denmark is a few steps ahead of the game and much more resourceful.


Now the question is, would district heating be successful in Maine? It is apparent that district heating proposes a variety of benefits, however, you must take into consideration the barriers that may stand in the way of implementation. One major set back is the upfront costs of infrastructure, design, and interconnectedness. It is an expense in which a state would need support of its people. The more cooperation there is, the more spread out the costs can be which would result in cheaper costs to the consumers than if there were less participation. Like many big purchases, the upfront costs can be steep, and the return on investment depends on the efficiency. For this particular case, a larger house will reap the benefits of district heating at a faster pace than a smaller house.

One major difference between Maine and Denmark is that Maine has many more homeowners than renters, whereas a majority of people in Denmark rent. People who are renting may be much more accepting of an idea such as district heating because they don’t actually own the building so it is ultimately the owners decision. The more homeowners and decision makers there are, the more resistance you may face, which could be the case with trying to implement a district heating system in Maine.

I personally believe Maine, and the United States in general, need to get away from the use of oil and become more conscious of the emissions we produce. What will it take for Maine to realize that we need to change? Well, Maine already understands that our heating approach is not the most efficient and environmentally conscious approach – we are extremely dependent on foreign oil and spend a lot of money on purchasing that oil. I was happy to see that Maine has a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) report addressing the issue of our dependency and need for change. However, we are not on the fast track to fixing this issue. I think it may take our situation becoming a bit more severe in order to get a serious start on the issue.

Every business we visited in Denmark shared a common goal:  to be a smart and carbon neutral city. By 2025, Copenhagen hopes to have a 20% reduction in heat consumption. Do we have goals such as these in Maine and the United States? Some businesses may have a goal of being environmentally conscious, however, not everyone has the same shared-vision. Maine lacks that sense of aligned goals. I believe that a communal goal is an extremely important place to start in becoming a “greener” state. If you can get everyone on the same page of sharing the same purpose, we’ll be much more effective. We may be briefly aware of our carbon footprint and the consequences of our actions, but we are definitely not as aware as everyone in Denmark. We can learn from Denmark’s success and begin with goals ranging from transportation to building houses.

An area in which Denmark excels beyond the district heating supply is making their buildings more energy efficient – they have very good doors and windows with lots of insulation, creating a much tighter house. These specifications allow for a much more efficient house, as we saw when we visited the Trelleborg house. Another aspect of their extremely efficient houses are their air water heaters; it takes the heat from the attic, which is hot due to the tile on the roof, and adds a little extra heat to the house. We have Trelleborg houses here in Maine, but they are not as common as in Denmark. Our doors do not close tight and our insulation is the bare minimum. Simple adjustments such as these can be made in order to create a more efficient house that will contain the heat we do use.

Another area that separates Denmark from Maine is that Denmark is a very dense country with buildings and houses very close to each other. District heating is ideal for this type of scenario because of the easy to reach locations. A concern for me in regard to district heating in Maine is how effective and efficient it would be. You can bike from one side of Denmark to the other within an hour, that’s how dense the country is. In Maine, we have houses more spread out throughout the state and it can take over 5 hours to drive from one side to the next. I believe district heating would be very beneficial in a location such as Portland, where it is a city with many houses and buildings built very close to one another. However, I’m not sure that it would be worth the expense to have a state-wide district heating system, especially as the houses become fewer and farther between, because the value may not be as beneficial.

One can argue that the benefits of a district heating system lessen, the warmer the location. However, Maine has weather that is quite similar to Denmark, so that could be a selling point in which district heating will be sustainable and worth the investment in Maine. I think a great way to integrate district heating would be to first start in a city such a Portland and see how successful it is before attempting to spread the approach throughout the whole state.

Another way to view the pros and cons of district heating is to put some numbers behind it:

The Benefits

  • Up to 50% less emissions than boilers
  • Fuel efficiencies of up to 94%
  • Price competitive: 45% less than heating oil and 56% less than natural gas
  • Utilizes and stores available heat which in turn reduces primary energy consumption by 70%, compared with individual boilers
  • Getting cooperation from the homeowners and decision makers in the country or state helps share the fixed costs of the infrastructure and reduces the overall heat prices for all consumers

The Disadvantages

  • High upfront cost which can take awhile to recoup
  • The benefits of district heating lessen the warmer the location

How do we get buy-in from consumers and decision makers? The good news is that there are already several combined heat and power facilities in Maine; however, it is focused on commercial businesses. Since district heating is already in place at some businesses around the state, this may be a gateway to getting district heating spread out through the state and into personal houses. An important aspect of getting consumer cooperation is through educating them; making people aware of their actions and how dependent we have become on foreign oil. Setting state goals is also imperative; having written aspirations will give us something to look back on as a measurement tool. We as consumers love incentives, so giving tax credits and energy efficiency programs for people who are willing to join the cause tend to be very successful. Also, aiming towards being a “greener” state will help people understand the vision.

It is apparent that Maine has the potential to become much more efficient in our heating approach. We have the vision already spelled out, but it is time that we take the steps necessary in achieving that vision. Maine’s temperatures are similar to that of Denmark, a country that has seen great success through the district heating program. We have cities in Maine that would benefit tremendously from a district heating approach but we must knock down the barriers that stand in our way – specifically, financial barriers. The government needs to step up and follow through with their plan. With the government’s support, district heating will be viable in Maine.






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