"Decarbonizing" heat and cooling, despite our technical advances, is not easy. We see it here in the UK.
Yet, it is a massive financial opportunity to seed incredible economic growth., We can meet the challenge.
The difficult challenge of decarbonizing the UK’s heat sector was recognized at a forum in London this week. Labour shadow energy spokesperson Alan Whitehead said the discussion indicated 'just how badly the UK is doing in decarbonizing heat and how relatively well we are doing in decarbonizing electricity.'
Also speaking at the Westminster Energy Forum’s ‘Priorities for heat networks in the UK’ discussion midweek, Dan Osgood, director of the heat and business energy directorate at the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the government was still researching the best way forward for tackling the issue.
“It’s a big challenge,” Osgood told the gathering of industry professionals. “Despite the complexity and time available, the Climate Change Act sets out legally binding targets for 2050 and we have an obligation to obey the law.”
Osgood said heat networks made particular sense in urban areas, where heat demand was highest, and where there were opportunities to exploit on a larger scale and reduce costs.
A government-funded £300m capital support for heat networks is in place, with £20m of that currently being used in nine pilot projects around the country.
“We are looking to significantly increase the number of heat networks in the UK and build sustainability in the market. We are working with the heat delivery unit (HDU) to support local authorities to achieve that aim and build their capacity.”
A contentious issue for the industry at the moment lies in the area of regulation. Forces within and outside the sector are keen, following some notably bad customer experiences, that the area is properly regulated for the good of all concerned. However, both the government and energy regulator, Ofgem, are non-committal at present in taking on board the regulation of what is still perceived to be a small industry, despite the carbon volumes associated with it.
Osgood said, “we are working with industry to drive up technical standards and the development of the Heat Trust to protect consumers and there is more to be done. There is good practice in the market and some evidence of difficulties.”
In Q&A, Fiona Riddoch of Edinburgh University pointed out that the decarbonization of heat was three times larger a problem than electricity, yet electricity was being given more attention. She asked if the experience of decarbonizing that sector would form some of the thinking in tackling heat.
“We have to get the right balance between innovation and deployment,” Osgood said, “How do you keep costs down, while dealing with heat impacts? There are lots of lessons we can learn from decarbonizing electricity- but there are differences –we can’t transport heat over the same distances as electricity for example. But understanding those differences is the focus of the working group.”
The director also acknowledged that the government was taking a wide view, in terms of energy efficiency, and how that could potentially bring down the costs involved in decarbonisation of heat.
“Well-designed heat networks can reduce bills by significant amounts for consumers but the easiest way is to shrink the problem and energy efficiency allow us to do that. Heating less in the first place is key,” he said.
Another strong strand of discourse at the forum surrounded the issue of cooling, and the inefficiencies involved.
Professor Toby Peters of the University of Birmingham said ‘cooling is absolutely forgotten’ yet represents a huge threat as well as opportunity for decarbonization ambitions.
“70 per cent of our food in the UK and EU is chilled or frozen, data centres require 50 per cent cooling for their operations, while air conditioning is 50 per cent. Two million tonnes of food were lost last year due to inefficient cold chains. By the end of this century cooling will account for 50 per cent of the world’s new energy and by mid-century will have overtaken demand for heat.”
Peters included other indicators as to the enormity of the cooling issue, including the fact that India has less than 15 per cent of the refrigerated trucks it needs, while a refrigerated unit produces 29 times more particulate matter and six times more NOx than a typical European engine.
“Cooling emits over 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 making it the third biggest emitter after US and China," Peters added.
Alan Whitehead, Labour’s shadow minister for energy and climate change said it’s clear that ‘cooling has been underdiscussed.’
“We know demand for cooling is going up substantially – if we don’t incorporate cooling a lot of the good we do in terms of heat will be undone,” he warned.
Despite that evidence, the BEIS director admitted that cooling was down the pecking order in the UK’s energy priorities.
“As you know the current support scheme is very much on the heat side of things. I suspect we will see more focus on cooling in the future, in the non-domestic sector, particularly how you integrate heating and cooling needs.”
Although there is a growing understanding of the impact of cooling, heating dominated the agenda.
Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems was keen to impress on the audience how much more effective district heating in the country could be if they installed up-to-date control systems on heat networks. It highlighted another factor facing the sector, the need to modernize the existing heat infrastructure.