The last gasps of government can be an interesting time. When the previous Labour government felt the end was nigh in 2010, we saw the speeding up of initiatives tied to the 2008 Climate Act, with mechanisms such as Carbon Reduction Commitment, Feed-in-Tariffs, the stirrings of post-Carbon Emissions Reductions Target world of Green Deal and ECO being brought forward. This, after years of countless green and white papers, showed that legacy became important to the ego of government.
Can heat be de-carbonised?
What is happening in these febrile dying days of the current government? One interesting area is that of low carbon heat. Heat, unlike power, is virtually always locally derived, due to high cost/low efficiency of heat storage and transportation. Therefore low carbon heat sources will always need to be locally located. Amber Rudd MP, Parliamentary-under-Secretary at DECC stated in her recent speech at the Annual Heat Conference that ‘Ultimately, heat is a local issue. So matching demand to potential supply must be the starting point in devising local solutions. We need the right tools to achieve this.’ As a society, we have developed a heat system in which the source of heat i.e. gas is brought as close to the point of use – and at the time of use – as possible, with the ubiquitous combi-boiler being the highest selling heat generator in the residential sector.
This clearly needs to change if we are going to decarbonise heat. For this, a few years ago, the great hope was heat pump technology. In his seminal 2008 book “Sustainable energy without the hot air” Prof David Mackay, who subsequently went on to become chief scientific advisor to government, summed up the future of heating as ‘electrifying heat, decarbonising electricity’.
It seemed simple. However, while some DECC officials seem relatively sanguine about the trajectory of the second part of that heat equation (e.g. DECC’s latest quarterly figures show that over 35% of electricity came from low carbon sources, despite the decline in nuclear generation), the first part remains a conundrum. Heat pumps’ coefficient of performance has just been downgraded in SAP 2012. A new government study analysing heat pump performance under the renewable heat premium price (RHPP) has been commissioned to better understand how well they actually perform. Having done some of the numbers, the costs of upgrading the electricity network to deal with the increased load from the projected increase in new heat pump-derived demand is being grappled with. The initial passion for mass roll-out of heat pumps seems a few degrees cooler than before.
Heat networks – the missing link
The old/new kid on the block is heat networks, previously referred to as district heating. There has been a realisation that a network of heat mains connected at the one ‘end’ to diverse users, can also be connected at the other ‘end’ to diverse suppliers. A new – more Nordic – vision is emerging from DECC.
Urban located networks of heat mains which tap into multiple sources of heat – some of which capture heat currently being wasted to the atmosphere – provide greater efficiency and security, as well as reducing the demand on large scale electricity upgrades needed to cater for the roll-out of heat pumps, according to DECC. Another nice simple answer.
A recently launched study by the left-leaning Carbon Connect think tank on the pathways to a low carbon heat future flagged up heat networks as a significant area for development. A simplified view, offered by a senior DECC figure was to put heat pumps and biomass into rural areas, and district heating into urban centres.
However there are a few pretty significant barriers, including a dearth of required spatial knowledge over the demand/ supply relationship, particularly for waste heat from power stations, as well as uncertainties about ‘the consumer’ and how they give up their beloved wall hung, compact, high temperature-producing combi boiler. In other words, how do you get the average Brit thinking differently about heat?
So to start to answer this, as the sun sinks on the current coalition, we note – with keen interest – the relatively recent launch of the Heat Networks Delivery Unit, the (Rural and now Urban) Community Energy Funds, and more recently the Small Business Research Initiative competition on heat networks.
Evolution not revolution
Our recommendation to government is that in a mature society, evolution rather than revolution is more likely to succeed. To do that, we need to use what we have, and what we have is not a huge number of large scale heat networks. But what we do have, although government does not seem to know it, is a significant number of small scale heat networks. In fact, at Sustain we have worked in over 14,000 of them, in both residential and commercial properties.
In our vision of the future, heat networks do play an important role – however where we perhaps differ from government is in how we get there.
Rather than focusing solely on the tough end of the market i.e. large scale infrastructure projects in urban areas, start with expanding current heat networks. The UK may be behind the curve when compared to the Nordic countries with the big stuff. But the good news is that, with these 14,000 plus small scale heat networks, we’ve got some great material to work with. These sites provide islands of centrally produced and communally consumed heat, which could be connected up, with the consumer already accustomed to paying for communally-generated heat, not gas. Localised additional sources of heat can be developed and tapped into as these networks are connected up, where viable.
The Heat Network Delivery Unit is a great first step in government providing some institutional support to the development of this under-represented way of providing heat. It is unclear currently whether there is cross party consensus on keeping this team in place post-election. We will be watching the manifestoes closely for evidence of a direction of travel.