Heat networks: a way to create new monopolies?

Today, in all European countries, with a more or less enthusiastic impulse and more or less coercive regulation, the gas and electricity markets are liberalizing and opening up to competition to an expected benefit for consumers.

The former energy monopolies discover the laws of open markets and, in many cases, lose fairly rapidly significant market shares to the benefit of many more aggressive players, but above all, freer and less constrained because they have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

At the same time, and without any apparent link with the opening up of markets mentioned above, heat networks are developing in all countries for their level of energy efficiency and their ability to benefit directly, without having to convert their production, of renewable energy sources (waste treatment, fatal heat recovery, geothermal energy).

The co-occurrence of these two phenomena, that seem independent, nevertheless pushes us to take a closer look at the situation. Integrated energy providers, like the German “Stadtwerke”, find a reason to commit themselves strongly to the development of heat networks.

A heat network supposes a real process of “membership” of the buildings potentially connected: from the point of view of the network, a sufficient number of memberships are necessary to justify the starting of the works, always expensive (the new districts are, for this reason, a favourable expansion field for heat networks); from the point of view of the owners or managers of existing buildings, a “membership” implies an important work that is justified over time. Thus the heat networks create a new dependence, over significant periods, between the energy company and its customers. At a time when certain monopolies are disappearing, others, of another form, emerge.

Through heat networks, integrated energy providers maintain a “protected” field of business, making them less vulnerable to the violent ruptures that have come about as a result of a necessary liberalization. And given the variety of configurations encountered, it is very difficult in these cases to control the price of thermal energy supplied to consumers.

In countries where suppliers and network managers are already clearly separated, heat networks are rather special infrastructures, often allowing the development of a commercial activity that is not yet regulated. In this case, for urban thermal applications, several solutions (heat network, collective boiler, individual heating) face each other, benefiting from very different market conditions.

Some countries may be tempted to regulate; an alternative route could be to enable all players, including all energy infrastructure managers, to access all these solutions.


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