The infant heat networks sector needs better metrics around deployment, effectiveness and customer service if it is to realise its potential. This is where Heat Trust comes in, says Bindi Patel.

The government’s Clean Growth Strategy reiterated that heat networks are an important part of the plan to reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector. This is in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s analysis predicting that heat networks could provide 18 per cent of the UK’s heat demand by 2050.

The government’s Heat Networks Investment Project offers the opportunity to create a step-change in the sector, with £320 million of dedicated funding for heat networks. The Scottish government also recently consulted on plans for dedicated heat network zones to facilitate deployment.

Commitment to new investment in the sector is encouraging. When designed, installed and operated well, heat networks can provide reliable, low-carbon and cost-effective heat and hot water. Heat Trust’s key concern is ensuring that heat networks deliver excellent outcomes for consumers.

Heat network operators provide an essential service to thousands of homes across the country.

With government funding supporting the market’s growth, it is vital that these heat networks demonstrate that they can deliver for customers. This means going beyond the theory outlined in design briefs and planning applications, and demonstrating that consumers receive a service they can trust.

Heat Trust, a stakeholder-led customer protection scheme, was launched in 2015 and sets robust customer service standards for the heat network sector, building on standards in the gas and electricity markets.

We believe that all heat networks should be required to meet the standards set by Heat Trust as a condition for receipt of public funding. This would ensure that customers, regardless of which heat networks they live on, are assured a consistent level of service.

Heat suppliers can further tailor their service by building upon these standards. The scheme, which already covers 51 heat networks and more than 30,000 customers, provides an independent dispute resolution service for consumers through an agreement with the Energy Ombudsman. Heat Trust works with its stakeholder committee to monitor customer service performance and identify ways to drive up service standards.

There is little publicly available information on heat networks and currently no concrete figures on the number of networks in the UK, the tenures they serve and the standards of service each network is meeting.

A key aim of Heat Trust, therefore, is to help improve transparency in the market. By monitoring the heat networks registered with Heat Trust, we are starting to build an evidence base on how heat networks are performing and the service that customers are receiving.

Through its first annual report, published this month, Heat Trust gives a snapshot into the issues that are concerning customers and shines a light on to areas where attention should be focused to support customer service improvements.

The report showed that 1,417 complaints were resolved by heat suppliers registered with the scheme.

A total of 73 complaints were referred to the Energy Ombudsman from customers on 24 heat networks registered with Heat Trust between November 2015 and December 2016. Of all the complaints resolved by the Energy Ombudsman, nearly three-quarters of people accepted the Energy Ombudsman’s decision.

Almost three quarters (74 per cent) of complaints related to issues around billing or back-billing. More than half of complaints about billing related to standing charges (54 per cent). Complaints also indicate that customers are not always informed that a property is on a heat network prior to moving in.

The report found that clear communication and more transparency on heat charges are key to improving customer satisfaction moving forward.

Heat Trust believes that industry, developers, landlords and estate agents should work collaboratively to ensure a consistent approach to informing customers when a heat network is present. This would involve supplying customers with the current tariff details and a sample heat supply agreement prior to their agreeing to purchase or rent a property.

The report also found variations on how data metrics are interpreted by different suppliers, highlighting the need for an industry-wide performance framework.

Heat Trust has urged the Association for Decentralised Energy to continue its work on a technical compliance framework for the sector, which will include performance metrics.

Heat networks have the potential to play a major role in the decarbonisation of heating, providing reliable, low-carbon and cost-effective heat and hot water. If the market is to grow, however, the issues around communication and transparency must be overcome.

The heat network industry has an unprecedented opportunity to be a major part of the transition to a low-carbon energy system in the UK. Technology and funding are paving the way to an exciting future, but it is consumers that will give us the mandate to change. We must not forget that.

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