The economics of body heat

It is widely acknowledged that the supply of oil and gas will eventually run out. As these resources are depleted, prices will inevitably rise. However, with heating and energy bills at extremely high levels, a new ‘resource’ in Sweden has been used to heat buildings: Body Heat!

Hundreds of thousands of people pass through Stockholm Central Station every day and rather than letting the body heat these people generate go to waste, a Swedish firm, Jernhusen, is now ‘collecting’ their heat, converting it into hot water and then using this as a new heating resource. Klass Johnasson, one of the creators of the system said:

This is old technology being used in a new way. The only difference here is that we’ve shifted energy between two different buildings.

The Swedish firm has found that the system is not only environmentally friendly, but it is also good business practice, as it has reduced the energy costs of the block by some 25%, which, during a recession and with high energy prices, is no small thing!

The costs and benefits of such a system will inevitably vary from country to country, but in Sweden’s case, it is a viable method of heating, given their high energy prices and low winter temperatures. They are not stealing the heat from anyone, but are simply converting the excess heat that is already there. Obviously, the fact that the firm owns the station, and also the land between the station and their building, is helpful in ‘transferring’ the energy, but the firm argues that even if this wasn’t the case, it’s nothing co-operation wouldn’t solve. Is this the future of low-cost and low-carbon heating?

Harvesting energy: body heat to warm buildings BBC News, Xanthe Hinchey (9/1/11)
How Sweden turns human body heat into useful energy BBC News (19/4/10)
Passengers passing by Stockholm Central Station reduce 25% of used heating energy The Green Optimistic, Mihai Sandru (12/1/11)
Body heat: the new energy source ecPulse (11/1/11)


  1. Think about how we define abundance. Is body heat an abundant resource?
  2. Why are energy and oil prices so high? How does scarcity affect their price?
  3. Could this source of heating be described as a market failure? If so, how could we illustrate this on a diagram?
  4. Consider the Swedish firm’s profit-maximising price and output. The new heating method is said to reduce their costs – will it affect their average and/or marginal costs? Show the impact on a diagram. What happens to the firm’s profits?
  5. Is this heating method something other firms could benefit from? How could they decide whether it is cost-effective?
  6. Is there a role for the government to encourage more firms to use this method? Explain your answer.