A thought experiment published recently by London-based climate charity 10:10 Climate Action raises the question of whether the many lost rivers of London could again become the lifeblood of one of the world’s Great Cities by using heat pumps to provide low cost, low carbon heating and cooling.
The city of London was founded nearly 2,000 years ago in 50 AD, and in that time, has undergone countless changes, building over and over again atop itself. One of the byproducts of this sort of longevity is that much of what made the old versions of London keep ticking are still there, in one form or another — often buried beneath new bits that keep London ticking today.
A prime example of this is the numerous lost rivers of London that were once the lifeblood of the city — useful for transport, powering water mills, sometimes providing water for drinking and cooking, but more often providing a cheap and useful way to dispose of your waste. Rivers with names like the Tyburn, Effra, and Fleet once drove the beating heart of London, but are now covered over and forgotten by all but a few.
10:10 Climate Action, a London-based charity that seeks to promote and enable practical community-level projects that tackle climate change, recently worked with energy experts from Social Enterprise consultancy Scene, to investigate five separate locations around London where its lost rivers could be used to heat the buildings above.
Specifically, their plans involve using heat pumps to harvest the low-grade heat of the tunnels running under London which were once rivers to provide heat (and cooling) to the buildings above.
There are already some places in Europe that are using underground waterways and heat pumps to generate heating — such as Borders College in Scotland and the State Ministry Building in Stuttgart, Germany — but 10:10 has five more places in London that could feasibly use this combination to generate low-cost and low-carbon heating and cooling.
The first of the five locations offered up by 10:10 and Scene is, surprisingly, Buckingham Palace — the home of the Queen of England. Not only has the Palace recently initiated a big refurbishment to modernize its heating, plumbing, and wiring in an effort to cut carbon emissions by 40%, but the River Tyburn flows from Hampstead, under Regent’s Park, and into Green Park, and only 250 meters north of Buckingham Palace there is a heavy flow of water that could result in plenty of harvested heating.
Less contentious but just as possible are places like the Hammersmith Town Hall, Acland Burghley School, Somers Town Heat Network, and Brockwell Lido.
While this might appear to be just an interesting thought experiment that 10:10 Climate Action and Scene cooked up between them, in reality, according to Daniel Jones from 10:10, “Councils we’ve spoken to have definitely been interested” in the idea. Specifically, London Mayor “Khan’s new environmental strategy is key to this though. It explicitly flags pioneering heat pump tech as central to decarbonisation plans, and as of next year no new commercial-scale developments in London will be able to use gas as their primary heating source.”
Further, it looks as if 10:10 has actually taken this idea to each of the five locations it highlighted in its study. Daniel Jones explains more:
“Camden Council is very interested in seeing if this could work for Somers Town Heat Network when they expand it during a coming phase-two, though this would be some years away; Acland Burghley are interested in principle but have a weird heating system with four different boiler centres currently, each with a different remaining lifespan; Hammersmith council were really interested, but their energy consultants Aecom tell me they have now ruled it out – although they refused to share their workings out with us so we don’t know exactly why; Buckingham Palace have publicly said they want to explore using heat pumps to meet at least some of the palace’s future heat demand, and we are now in touch with their consultants WSP to set up a meeting with them and the royal household to talk about the resource we identified and whether it could be possible to use.”
Whether or not London’s lost rivers begin pulling their weight again is up for debate, but obviously, there is particular interest in the UK around the idea of using heat pumps to provide low-cost, low-carbon heating and cooling.
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