Decarbonising Britain: why are we so cool on heat?
Kevin Stickney, Managing Director of Erda Energy, asks why we’re lagging on decarbonising heat in the UK and argues it’s time for the industry to up its game.
Winter, at last, seems to be over. But it had a sting in its tail which most of us won’t forget in a hurry. The Beast from the East will no doubt have had many of us reaching for the thermostat, wincing at the thought of the bill. A growing number of us will also have been grimacing at the thought of burning even more fossil fuels to heat our homes and businesses. That’s because, despite our fantastic progress in decarbonising our electricity, we’ve yet to see anything like the same success in greening our heat supply.
But we need to. Heating makes up 32% of our total emissions, far ahead of power (21%) and transport (24%). We need a credible pathway to zero carbon heating.
What are the options?
There are those that root for burning low carbon fuels, such as biomass, for heat. Others advocate replacing or augmenting our natural gas network with hydrogen or biogas. Combined heat and power (CHP) systems – which convert a single fuel into both electricity and heat in a single process at the point of use – have also had a positive impact so far, but their future is limited due to a changing electricity grid.
However, burning biomass, biogas or waste still produces carbon emissions, even if offset by the growth of crops. There are also questions around land-use conflicts for biofuels and the wisdom of dependency on waste streams. Hydrogen seems more promising, but all current methods for producing it at scale are themselves carbon intensive.
The other route is electrifying our heat. The advantage here is that there are no carbon emissions from the heating itself, only from the power generation that supplies it. Our power in the UK isn’t zero-carbon yet, but we have a clear and credible pathway for making it so and a proven track-record for progress – between 1990 and 2015 emissions fell by almost half and are set to fall 70% by 2020 from 2010 levels.
In fact, that track record of decarbonisation in power is something we can look to for lessons in heating. It’s not always been a smooth process, but what has allowed for success? Continued investment in ever cheaper and more efficient renewable energy technologies is part of, but not the whole story.
One aspect is the need for a well-designed incentive regime. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was a good attempt that has helped to reduce carbon. That said, the National Audit Office estimates it is set to meet only one fifth of the government’s target for installations by 2021, so some modifications are needed. We also need to update building regulations, which require developers to tick boxes based on outdated understanding of the technology available. Building regulations also need a revamp given that – owing to rapid changes in the electricity grid in recent years – the carbon content of the network is now much lower than what designers are permitted to use in the buildings. We are missing opportunities to encourage further carbon reductions.
Decarbonisation of the grid also owes a lot to the creation of a smarter grid. By connecting up previously distinct but complementary systems, you can create new efficiencies. So, in heat, we should also be looking at cooling. Done right, they can be two sides of the same coin and mutually supportive. For example, supermarkets’ refrigeration – even after optimisation – creates a huge amount of “waste” heat that could be used by local homes and businesses – and vice versa.
The other big ‘smart’ element for power grids has been the ability to time-shift supply and demand to better match the two. Demand side response schemes are one way, and battery storage is the much-anticipated final piece of the puzzle here. However, in heating, we’ve had that puzzle-piece for a long time already.
Geo-exchange technology – as the name implies – exchanges heat between a source and destination. Powered by electricity, it can be used for heating or cooling. This exchange can allow for time-shifting energy by capturing energy at times when you don’t need the heat.
Upping our game
If it’s clear that electrification is a viable route to zero-carbon, and we have proven geo-exchange systems (plus air source heat pumps and other geothermal technologies) then it begs the question: why isn’t there more of it? Why the lack of enthusiasm?
There’s no use laying the blame on the government. Yes, tweaking incentive regimes would be helpful. Yes, it’s fair to say that we need to see the same focus that was spent on decarbonisation of power (and now, increasingly, transport) brought to bear on heat. However, we as an industry need to accept that we haven’t done enough – we’ve created our own performance gap.
Ground and air source heat pumps have existed for decades, yet too often systems have been let down by immature technology delivering lacklustre performance. Coefficients of performance (CoP) of two are assumed to be the norm, and those figures often don’t add up to a viable investment case in either carbon or financial terms. Investment in innovative engineering has been lacking.
Nor has there been enough focus on total systems thinking; integrating renewable heat systems with complementary technologies such as frequency response, renewable generation and district energy networks.
The sector has drifted along, picking up projects where developers are keen to show green credentials but reaching only a fraction of its commercial and environmental potential. We need to do better.
Geo-exchange technology can make that difference. CoPs of more than four are common, meaning the energy output in heat is quadruple that input as electricity. Carbon-intensity depends on that electrical input, which could be zero-carbon if paired with onsite renewables, but is falling all the time even for the grid. For our systems, we publish live energy and carbon performance metrics, based on data from Elexon and systems in-the-field and independently verified by the University of Oxford.
It’s our job in the industry to make smart, electric renewable heating systems a no-brainer. To make the commercial and environmental case so compelling that the market has no choice but to sit up and take notice. High-performance, smart electric heating (and cooling) systems like geo-exchange offer a clear and credible path to zero-carbon as part of a proven eco-system of renewable technologies. It’s a path we can’t afford not to take.
 Clean Growth Strategy p. 22, referring to BEIS’ UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory Statistics (1990-2015)
 BEIS’ updated energy and emissions projections 2017 p. 33
UK must stop blundering into high carbon choices warns CCC
The UK Government must end a year of climate contradictions and stop blundering on high carbon choices, according to the Climate Change Committee as it released 200 policy recommendations in a progress to Parliament update.
While the rigour of the Climate Change Act helped bring COP26 to the UK, it is not enough for Ministers to point to the Glasgow summit and hope that this will carry the day with the public, the Committee warns. Leadership is required, detail on the steps the UK will take in the coming years, clarity on tax changes and public spending commitments, as well as active engagement with people and businesses across the country.
"It it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months. There are gaps and ambiguities. Climate resilience remains a second-order issue, if it is considered at all. We continue to blunder into high-carbon choices. Our Planning system and other fundamental structures have not been recast to meet our legal and international climate commitments," the update states. "Our message to Government is simple: act quickly – be bold and decisive."
The UK’s record to date is strong in parts, but it has fallen behind on adapting to the changing climate and not yet provided a coherent plan to reduce emissions in the critical decade ahead, according to the Committee.
- Statutory framework for climate The UK has a strong climate framework under the Climate Change Act (2008), with legally-binding emissions targets, a process to integrate climate risks into policy, and a central role for independent evidence-based advice and monitoring. This model has inspired similarclimate legislation across the world.
- Emissions targets The UK has adopted ambitious territorial emissions targets aligned to the Paris Agreement: the Sixth Carbon Budget requires an emissions reduction of 63% from 2019 to 2035, on the way to Net Zero by 2050. These are comprehensive targets covering all greenhouse gases and all sectors, including international aviation and shipping.
- Emissions reduction The UK has a leading record in reducing its own emissions: down by 40% from 1990 to 2019, the largest reduction in the G20, while growing the economy (GDP increased by 78% from 1990 to 2019). The rate of reductions since 2012 (of around 20 MtCO2e annually) is comparable to that needed in the future.
- Climate Risk and Adaptation The UK has undertaken three comprehensive assessments of the climate risks it faces, and the Government has published plans for adapting to those risks. There have been some actions in response, notably in tackling flooding and water scarcity, but overall progress in planning and delivering adaptation is not keeping up with increasing risk. The UK is less prepared for the changing climate now than it was when the previous risk assessment was published five years ago.
- Climate finance The UK has been a strong contributor to international climate finance, having recently doubled its commitment to £11.6 billion in aggregate over 2021/22 to 2025/26. This spend is split between support for cutting emissions and support for adaptation, which is important given significant underfunding of adaptation globally. However, recent cuts to the UK’s overseas aid are undermining these commitments.
In a separate comment, it said the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan was an important statement of ambition, but it has yet to be backed with firm policies.
Baroness Brown, Chair of the Adaptation Committee said: “The UK is leading in diagnosis but lagging in policy and action. This cannot be put off further. We cannot deliver Net Zero without serious action on adaptation. We need action now, followed by a National Adaptation Programme that must be more ambitious; more comprehensive; and better focussed on implementation than its predecessors, to improve national resilience to climate change.”
Priority recommendations for 2021 include setting out capacity and usage requirements for Energy from Waste consistent with plans to improve recycling and waste prevention, and issue guidance to align local authority waste contracts and planning policy to these targets; develop (with DIT) the option of applying either border carbon tariffs or minimum standards to imports of selected embedded-emission-intense industrial and agricultural products and fuels; and implement a public engagement programme about national adaptation objectives, acceptable levels of risk, desired resilience standards, how to address inequalities, and responsibilities across society.
Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner said the report is another reminder that if the UK is to meet its ambitious climate targets there is an urgent need to scale up bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
"As the world’s leading generator and supplier of sustainable bioenergy there is no better place to deliver BECCS at scale than at Drax in the UK. We are ready to invest in and deliver this world-leading green technology, which would support clean growth in the north of England, create tens of thousands of jobs and put the UK at the forefront of combatting climate change."
Drax Group is kickstarting the planning process to build a new underground pumped hydro storage power station – more than doubling the electricity generating capacity at its iconic Cruachan facility in Scotland. The 600MW power station will be located inside Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s highest mountain – and increase the site’s total capacity to 1.04GW (click here).
Lockdown measures led to a record decrease in UK emissions in 2020 of 13% from the previous year. The largest falls were in aviation (-60%), shipping (-24%) and surface transport (-18%). While some of this change could persist (e.g. business travellers accounted for 15-25% of UK air passengers before the pandemic), much is already rebounding with HGV and van travel back to pre-pandemic levels, while car use, which at one point was down by two-thirds, only 20% below pre-pandemic levels.