Warming up low carbon heat

Louise Kingham OBE FEI, Chief Executive, Energy Institute

Louise Kingham OBE FEI, Chief Executive, Energy Institute

Louise Kingham of the Energy Institute (EI) surveys the prospects for low carbon heat…

This is proving to be a year of symbolic firsts on the UK energy system’s road to its low carbon destination.

One weekend in March, there was so much distributed solar PV on the system that the amount of electricity demanded of the grid was, for the first time ever, lower during the day than it was during the night. In April we saw our first day without any coal power since the 1880s. And in September offshore wind projects were awarded contracts at record-low strike prices, challenging new gas on cost competitiveness.

This is the energy transition happening before our eyes, it builds on a decade of tremendous progress in the power sector, something that’s crucial as large parts of our economy will in future be shifting onto the grid.

But we have yet to see comparable milestones in relation to low carbon heat.

Heat accounts for about 40% of UK energy consumption and about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, the majority from residential use. Reducing heat emissions is therefore non-negotiable if the UK is to reach its climate targets.

At present only about 2.5% of heat comes from low carbon sources, compared with more than 45% for electricity. The Committee on Climate Change believes UK heating must be virtually zero-carbon by 2050.

This is not for want of solutions, many of them increasingly cost effective, even in a country with such a mixed housing stock and large dependence on a natural gas distribution system for heating and cooking.

Recent work by the Energy Technologies Institute estimates for example that the UK could save up to £30 billion through the adoption of district heat networks, supplying heat to homes and businesses through pipes carrying water heated using waste heat from power stations and large-scale heat pump deployment.

The Energy Institute’s recent Energy Barometer survey found a majority of UK energy professionals foresee a gradual transformation of the sources of heat used in the UK.

While gas is expected to remain the dominant heat source, its share is predicted to decrease from 70% in 2015 to 55% in 2030. Interestingly there was significant variation between the survey’s respondents – with previous assumptions about heat decarbonisation being achieved by way of electrification being superseded by a multiple technology approach involving bioenergy, hydrogen, solar thermal, waste heat and heat pumps.

This perhaps reflects uncertainties following a period of frozen government policy. 60% of energy professionals believe policy to date on developing low carbon heat has had either a negative or negligible effect and a majority see the need for new financial incentives and mandatory standards in this area.

But despite the uncertainties, the mood of the low carbon heat industry remains confident. The upside of a challenge this big is the scale of the market opportunity, and it was clear from November’s Heat and Decentralised Energy conference, hosted by the EI and the Association for Decentralised Energy, that this industry will be the next big player in the UK energy system’s journey to low carbon.

The conference heard from a BEIS official about the recent Clean Energy Strategy, which gave renewable heat a welcome shot in the arm.

The existing Renewable Heat Incentive is already being refocussed on longer term decarbonisation options such as heat pumps and biogas. It will spend £4.5bn to support innovative low-carbon heat technologies in homes and businesses by 2021. A new £10m innovation programme will support new heating technologies in homes and commercial buildings and policy is proposed to phase out installations of high-carbon fossil fuel heating in homes not connected to the gas grid.

But more heavy lifting is needed on low carbon heat. The Clean Growth Strategy recognises the need to set out further detail, which is promised over the next twelve months. That’s an opportunity for industry, to help an interested Government fill in the gaps.

Almost ten years on from passing the Climate Change Act, the UK has so far met its statutory carbon targets. Emissions are now 42% lower than the 1990 baseline.

But from here on in the task gets more complex. Reaching the fifth carbon budget of a 57% cut by 2030, and delivering on our commitments under the Paris Agreement, will require real and concerted inroads into decarbonising how we heat our homes and power our industries.

This blog first appeared as an article for the Dec/Jan 2018 edition of Network magazine.

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