Efforts intensify on decarbonising heat networks

By Dominic Ellis
Decarbonising heat is essential to tackling climate change but it requires rapid deployment of complex large-scale energy generation assets and upgrades

Heating our homes and businesses makes up a significant part of our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions – they account for around a third of UK emissions. Decarbonising heat, reducing and eliminating the greenhouse gases emitted during its generation and use, is essential to tackling climate change. 

In its report, Net-zero: the road to low-carbon heat, the CBI recommends a new national delivery body to formulate and steer a national plan for heat decarbonisation and to work with regions and cities to co-ordinate efforts across scales, sectors and geographies.

Mott MacDonald's The Path To Zero Carbon Heat say decarbonising heat by 2050 requires actions to be undertaken in the next five years, and among its critical activity recommendations are:

  • Increase deployment of heat pumps and hybrid heat pumps in line with the CCC’s advice, at low-regret sites – via local initiatives, incentive schemes and trials in hard-to-convert buildings
  • Accelerate the growth of district heat networks by developing regulatory and financial frameworks, enhancing consumer protection/confidence and unlocking investment

Companies are starting to step up a gear. SSE Energy Solutions and National Grid yesterday unveiled a new project, capturing waste heat from electricity transformers to generate hot water and space heating for homes and businesses.

It is estimated that the heat recovery project will initially reduce heat network carbon emissions by more than 40% versus traditional gas-led systems. Critically, the technology offers a route to net-zero heat when applied to transformers served by 100% renewable electricity from wind or solar farms.

The project has the potential to save "millions of tonnes of CO2 every year" if rolled out across National Grid’s network of transformers across England and Wales, harnessing this waste heat via SSE heat networks to serve towns and cities across the region, the companies claim.

Nathan Sanders, Managing Director at SSE Energy Solutions, said: “Electric power transformers generate huge amounts of heat as a by-product when electricity flows through them. At the moment, this heat is just vented directly into the atmosphere and wasted. By their very nature, electricity transformers are primarily located where people live, work and consume energy meaning that they have the potential to be incredibly valuable community assets if we apply a bit of clever thinking.

“This groundbreaking project aims to capture that waste heat and effectively turn transformers into community ‘boilers’ that serve local heat networks with a low or even zero-carbon alternative to fossil-fuel powered heat sources such as gas boilers. We see heat networks as a key part of the UK’s future low carbon energy infrastructure, enabling us to exploit waste heat sources and use these to heat homes and businesses across the country.

“At SSE Energy Solutions we are always looking at innovative ways to improve our operational efficiency, produce value for customers and reduce energy bills. Our partnership with National Grid does exactly that and decarbonising our heat networks through the electrification of heat is just one of the exciting ways we’re driving the transition to net zero.”

Alexander Yanushkevich, Deeside Innovation Manager of National Grid, said it was proud to partner with SSE Energy Solutions to develop this innovative technology and support decarbonisation of heat, which is essential to achieve net zero.

"When the solution is fully developed and tested, we can use it in any of our 350 substations and provide heat to local consumers. Together with SSE, National Grid is a Principal Partner of COP26, and projects like these are a great example of how, taking a whole system approach, the UK can lead the way in helping accelerate decarbonisation.”

SSE Energy Solutions’ heat recovery technology is currently undergoing a proof-of-concept trial at National Grid’s Deeside Centre for Innovation, the first facility in Europe where assets associated with electricity networks can be tested off-grid. The centre is designed as a unique environment for developments and trials of new technologies and practices. Deeside is a key part of National Grid Electricity Transmission’s Innovation programme, a series of projects, informed and developed by stakeholders, innovating to address the challenges of the energy transition.

SSE is a founder member of the Heat Networks Industry Council, an industry-wide group collaborating with the government to unlock the potential of zero carbon heat networks and provide around 20% of the UK’s heat by 2050. HNIC members are committed to creating 20-35,000 new direct jobs and investment of up to £50bn in the UK market, while decarbonising heat networks by 2035.

At present, SSE Group, which operates 18 large heating and cooling networks across the UK, plans to invest around £2bn largely in low carbon power projects this year and is weighing up further investments as the UK prepares to host COP26. SSE Renewables is committed to delivering 30TWh of renewables a year by 2030.

Scotland aims to provide all homes will have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of band C by 2040, where technically feasible and cost effective, and all non-domestic buildings will have their energy efficiency improved to the extent that it is technically feasible and cost effective.

By 2032, it aims to reduce residential heat demand by 15% and non-residential heat demand by 20% by improving the fabric of the country's buildings and ensuring they are insulated to the maximum appropriate level. It is working on a number of schemes:

Mott MacDonald outlines the key infrastructure challenges covering electrification, hydrogen and hybrid.

One of the biggest infrastructure challenges common to all pathways is the requirement to have begun the mass deployment of complex large-scale technologies by 2030, some of which will still be relatively immature. For example, both the electric and hybrid pathways require several GW of nuclear or gas CCUS power generation capacity to be deployed every year for two decades; and the hydrogen scenario assumes that 1-2GW AMT+CCUS hydrogen production capacity is deployed each year from 2030, scaling up to 5GW+ each year from 2035.

"All of our pathways assume ambitious nationwide energy efficiency programmes to reduce heat demand are implemented across the UK’s existing building stock, most of which will still be standing in 2050. Measures such as loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and solid wall insulation must be applied to over 25M homes and millions more non-residential buildings, reducing total heat demand by around 25%," it states. 

The report makes the case for hybrid heat pump systems, the installation of an electrically-driven heat pump alongside a secondary heat source (such as a gas boiler) and control system – all in the same building. The rationale for deploying them are:

  • End-user acceptability
  • Lower levels of end-user disruption
  • Reducing near-term CO2 emissions
  • System flexibility
  • Lower overall infrastructure requirements

In its summary, it notes decarbonising heat is a true system challenge. "Not only will it require the rapid deployment of complex large-scale energy generation assets and upgrades to electricity and gas networks, but it means installing new heating systems into virtually every building in the country. Infrastructure delivery must be integrated and co-ordinated across multiple sectors and along the entire infrastructure value chain over a 30-year period."


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