Decarbonising Britain: Has heat been left behind?
By Kevin Stickney, Managing Director at Erda Energy
In the race to decarbonise our electricity supply, few would argue with the fact that the UK has made massive strides. The evolution of smarter grids and continued investment in ever cheaper renewable energy technologies have played a large part in this, while the ability to time shift supply and demand to better match the two has also helped with the transition.
But when it comes to greening our heating, we’ve not seen anything like the same success. Heating makes up a whopping 32% of our total emissions – trumping both power (21%) and transport (24%). While we are far along in our journey to decarbonise electricity, there is no doubt that we now need to find a credible pathway to zero-carbon heating.
Weighing it up
Burning biomass, biogas or waste have been touted as ways to reduce carbon. But while these are low-carbon fuels, they are not zero carbon. Emissions are an inevitable by-product, meaning that these will never be a fully adequate pathway to a green heat supply. The other major contender is hydrogen, but there’s currently no technically or commercially viable way to produce this without carbon emissions at scale.
Another route would be to electrify our heat. This would mean that the heating itself would provide no carbon emissions, with the power generation that supplies it the only culprit. The UK has a great track record so far in decarbonising power. Between 1990 and 2015 emissions fell by almost half and are set to fall 70% by 2020 from 2010 levels. There’s plenty of evidence, then, to suggest that electrifying heat is a credible path to zero carbon. Yes, this would bolster the demand for electrical supply, but if properly managed this is a challenge that would be far from insurmountable (as this excellent post from Exeter University’s Richard Lowes explores).
Setting an example
Indeed, the track record of decarbonisation in power is something that we can learn lessons from in heating.
Linking up previously distinct yet complementary systems was instrumental in creating new efficiencies in the power grid. Similarly, combining heating with cooling could create a powerful symbiosis, with the two supporting each other. 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.
Geo-exchange technology, as the name suggests, exchanges heat between a source and destination, using the thermal stability of the earth to cut energy use in heating. Powered by electricity, it can be used for it can be used for heating or cooling. This exchange can allow for long-term time-shifting energy by capturing it at times when you don’t need the heat.
Upping our game
Without doubt, electrification is a viable to route to zero carbon heat and we have proven geo-exchange systems – along with air source heat pumps and other technologies – to enable this. The question is: why haven’t we done more with them?
The answer is simply that we, as the industry, have not done enough. It is our job now to make smart, renewable heating systems a no-brainer. In the race to a zero-carbon future, electricity is leagues ahead of heating. High-performance, smart electric heating systems like geo-exchange mean that we now have proof we have the tools to catch-up.