January 1, 2021

Decarbonising heat in UK buildings

Societal pressure to address the climate emergency have has been building through high -profile campaigns led by individuals like Greta Thunberg and movements such as Extinction Rebellion. However, 2020 will be marked by the devastating social and economic impact of COVID-19, rather than the start of a decade when we seriously pursue the goal of being a Net Zero Carbon society by 2050. So, in a post COVID world, what signs are there that progress to tackle the climate emergency will remain on track?

The stage is set for the UK to demonstrate international leadership in 2021, in the Presidency of the delayed UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP26) and in the G7 Presidency. At a policy level, encouragement can be drawn from  the UK becoming the first major country to legislate for a Net Zero Target for carbon emissions by 2050. This was followed up on 4 December 2020 with a  new, ambitious target to reduce the UK’s emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. In Scotland, theClimate Change Bill commits to a target of Net Zero Emissions of all green house gases by 2045.  


Within this policy framework, significant resources are being allocated to back up policy commitments, including the new 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.  However, there is significant debate whether the mix of regulation and incentive currently in place will drive the transformational change required or result in piecemeal, incremental improvement.  


Historically, in pursuit of Net Zero Carbon goals the UK has done a good job of decarbonising power supply. The Climate Change Act led to a 34% fall in carbon emissions between 2008 and 2019, while real GDP per capita rose by more than 10% after the 2008/09 recession. This demonstrates decarbonising and economic growth are not incompatible and can be done without incurring major aggregate costs.  

Moving on from power supply, the next great prize is to decarbonise how we heat our buildings, which comprises 50% of the UK energy budget. Despite considerable incentives channelled through the work BEIS Heat Network Delivery Unit HDU (HNDU) and Heat Network Investment Programme (HNIP) achievement of “pipes in the ground “ has proved challenging. Similarly, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments for heat pumps has led to below target uptake. So, what is getting in the way of progress in this key domain?


Peter Ohrstrom, Chief Technical Officer of Bizcat UK a low carbon energy consulting company believes the key to decarbonising heat in UK buildings lies in optimising building energy performance to ensure a smooth transition from fossil-fuelled, high-temperature systems to a low carbon, low-temperature systems such as heat networks and heat pumps, air source, ground source, and water source.    


Ohrstrom claims: “The process of optimisation leads to significant benefits of CO2 reduction and significant cost savings with modest investment”.  He cites  recent groundbreaking work in a traditional, gas heated municipal building in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom. The project showed convincingly that, flattening a spiky heat demand profile combined with reduced system temperatures (50 degrees Celsius, instead of 80 degrees Celsius flow at 0 degrees Celsius ambient), provided the same or better indoor temperatures, reduced peak heat demand (boiler capacity) by at least 60% and increased boiler efficiency by 5%. It is his belief that these results can be improved further, demonstrating that, both capital and operating expenditure, as well as energy usage, can be reduced by simple, cost -effective control measures.   

The process of optimising existing buildings, designing and operating new buildings with Net Zero Goals in mind carries considerable benefits and is an essential first step in connecting to renewable heat sources.  Both heat pumps and heat networks offer reliable, proven technical solutions, deployed at city scale in many European countries, so what is preventing wider and faster adoption in the UK?          


Dave Pearson, Group Sustainable Development Director of Star Refrigeration, Ltd,  a notable heat pump installer, thinks heat pumps offer the opportunity to create employment whilst dialling down local emissions (NOx), levels of fuel imports, global emissions (CO2) and be the bedrock of a green recovery that can be started now.


Pearson explains; “We have a growing realisation that heat pumps work. Star Refrigeration has finally repeated their success from 2010 in Drammen (Norway) to draw heat from the local river/fjord to replicate a similar scheme in Clydebank, Scotland.”    


However, barriers remain, many of which are regulatory, creating a far from level playing field for heat pumps and heat network deployment for new builds. Pearson provides the example of non-domestic rates where a tax is applied to new developments, not carried by existing gas networks, that add approximately 50% to cost arising of clean heat. Similarly, taxes on electrical production and grid management now add around 100% to the cost of clean heat from a heat pump.  


If regulatory and cultural barriers to the way we design, operate and manage our central heating systems can be overcome, the potential towards achieving Net Zero Carbon goals is considerable. With the hydrogen economy a glittering but currently distant prospect, perhaps the near-term solutions are in plain sight.    Adopting a “buildings first” approach will lead to a successful and economic heat pump and heat network installations and achieve other key benefits in the journey to carbon neutrality.


Future Energy Partners works with firms such as Bizcat UK to develop practical solutions. Concentrated populations in cities of today and the cities of the future can achieve significant progress towards net zero by utilising resources that are literally under their feet.


David Westwood is the Chief Operating Officer of Nomad Energy Solutions, a technology -led service provider enabling healthy, energy -efficient buildings.

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