Distribution (in)justices: The Case of District Heating Utilities

Starting in the first half of the 20th century, district heating spread widely in European cities such as Copenhagen, Reykjavík, Hamburg or Zurich. Typically built and operated by communal governments or publicly owned companies, district heating utilities were intended to reduce smoke pollution, increase energy efficiency and provide equal access to reliable and affordable heating. Connecting to the hot water grid brought fundamental changes for energy consumers, not only because of higher comfort and lower heating costs. It also entailed a transition from decentral heating, where people burn fuel locally, to a centralized form of energy distribution, where not the fuel itself but thermal energy is distributed in the form of hot water/steam. While the histories of electricity, water and natural gas utilities have been fairly well explored by historians, the causes and effects of the spread of district heating are still only marginally understood. What were the primary motives for building district heating utilities? Who decided which neighbourhoods would receive access to district heating? How did the centralization of heating affect energy justice in urban communities? Could district heating eliminate prevailing injustices?