It’s getting hot in here: how to create warmth without burning fossil fuels

As the UK continues to battle its way to an 80% reduction of its carbon emissions by 2050, a sinking feeling has begun to set in for those who are aware of and involved with decarbonising the UK. Our current infrastructure and policies do not provide the right basis required to transition to a low-carbon economy at speed.

It’s getting hot in here: how to create warmth without burning fossil fuels

The UK has been coasting for the past 10 years, buffeted along by below par legislation that has lost any value it once added. Key legislative drivers, like Part L and EPC/DEC, don’t inspire the construction and design industry to create buildings with minimal impact on the environment. They do however create a short-term economic incentive for cutting corners on buildings’ environmental credentials. By barely reaching the standards specified by Part L or the desired EPC level, build teams can begin transforming perceived costs into short-sighted savings.

Unfortunately, this style of “value engineering” in buildings is a rife phenomenon globally. This happens despite repeated evidence that when sustainability is pursued throughout a buildings’ lifetime, it leads to reduced costs, carbon emissions, and in some cases, improvement of well-being.

The severity of this problem is reinforced by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who states that by 2040, the built environment needs to produce zero emissions to allow the UK to reach its 2050 targets. A significant step towards achieving our targets would be to reduce the level of carbon emissions associated with heat. As heating and hot water make up 40% of our energy consumption and 20% of our GHG emissions (according to the CCC), decarbonising heat will be a significant step towards reaching these targets.

So what is the real problem?

Despite recent shifts in world politics, the UK has fallen behind other leading nations, like Finland and Sweden in trying to stimulate a shift towards a low-carbon economy. The danger presented by climate change in the absence of a strategy for decarbonising the UK is well publicised, however there are two other causes for concern – fuel poverty and energy security. Together, these three threats are typically described as the ‘energy trilemma’. For many of us it, the energy trilemma as an irrelevant problem, however, there are local and global examples which clearly demonstrate that ignoring these three problems is not an option.

Fuel Poverty

According to the most recent fuel poverty report published in 2017 by the UK government, 11% of all households in the UK are considered to be suffering from fuel poverty. Fuel poverty is a term applied to a household who has higher than typical energy costs, and whose income would fall below the poverty line if it was required to pay for fuel. The report highlighted that the private rented sectors, multi-adult households and older dwellings are most likely to be affected.

Energy Security

Energy security is a term defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as, “the un-interrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”. By using a combination of fuel sources (biomass, ASHPs, natural gas, CHP, etc) in heat networks, this factor can be reduced as households have access to a continuous supply of energy at a cheaper rate, made possible by lower maintenance costs and increased lifespan of equipment.

Climate change

Volatile temperatures across the globe are putting increased pressures on our heating and cooling systems. NASA data this year showed that 2016 surface temperatures were the hottest to ever be recorded. Reducing the human population’s carbon emissions has a big part to play in slowing the continuous rise in average global temperature.

What is the solution?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted three key energy efficient technologies which will help to pave the way to the envisioned 80% reduction by 2050 in the UK. These are heat pumps, heat networks and hydrogen as a fuel source. All these technological advancements could allow the UK to reduce carbon emissions associated with heating, and potentially alleviate some of the strain causing our energy trilemma.

Heat pumps are an alternative heating and cooling technology that consumes less energy, particularly when compared to standard air conditioning units. A heat network is a centralised heating system which provides heating for more than one end-user, for example in a block of flats or a shopping centre. Providing heat in this way allows a building’s heat demand to be fuelled from different sources, helping to smooth out peak demand periods and encourage competition between suppliers. Finally, hydrogen is a lot less carbon intensive than its fossil fuel equivalents. Hydrogen is a particularly attractive option as the infrastructure in place could support hydrogen with little to no alterations, as hydrogen storage and distribution has very similar requirements to natural gas.

Will it be enough?

In principle, the problems, benefits and solutions to decarbonising heat may be clear. It will require a coordinated effort between all stakeholders involved to make it a reality that is truly sustainable. Everyone who plays a role in the built environment, whether it is in design, construction, commissioning, facilities or as occupants, should be aware of how the desired heat system should work and what its objectives are. By ensuring that knowledge is shared between all the players involved, the system will be properly maintained, reducing the impact of climate change, energy security and fuel poverty.

Unfortunately, this won’t happen without clear legislative guidance, supported by continued incentives such as Heat Networks Improvement Project (HNIP) and RHI, alongside penalties for poor performance such as fines and public exposure. As a result, it’s imperative that governing bodies like BEIS and the GLA, alongside UK businesses continue to develop and augment pathways to a low-carbon economy. Otherwise, the alternative will have major long-term effects on our economy, social structures and environmental quality.

Jack Morris is an analyst at Carbon Smart

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