Heat decarbonisation: can we ride the crest of the wave?

Dr Joanne Wade OBE FEI, Chief Strategic Advisor at the Association for Decentralised Energy

The need to decarbonise heating in our homes and workplaces becomes ever more urgent.  Technology alone will not solve this problem: we energy users need to change the way we do things.  Many of these changes may simply involve choosing less familiar technologies; some will be more radical, involving the way we live our lives.  But all the changes will need not only to be accepted, but actually to be welcomed by energy users if we are to deliver the transformation we need in the time we have available.

At the moment, it is not possible to write about transformations, in technologies, economies or lifestyles, without considering the impact of COVID-19. Is the combination of net zero and the pandemic a perfect storm? Will it crash over the low carbon heat sectors and drown us, or will it actually pick us up and carry us to as yet uncharted waters? 

The pandemic has shown that we can radically change the way we do things, if we have to.  But at what cost? For some of us, with desk jobs and with space, light, warmth and decent broadband at home, it has perhaps been a nice change to avoid the commute and spend more time in the garden.  For others, with less secure jobs that need us to be physically present, or with cramped or unhealthy homes, it is a different story.  Rapid change is possible, but it is only positive with the right infrastructure to support it.

The parlous state of many of our buildings is being highlighted as we move towards an uncertain winter.  Lockdowns and self-isolation are bad enough in warm, comfortable homes.  In the far too many homes in the UK that have inadequate insulation and heating, a resurgence of the virus may strand families in unhealthy environments for extended periods of time, exacerbating existing ill-health and putting more strain on the NHS. 

And will businesses with only half their staff in the office see the benefits in terms of reduced energy use?  Probably not, at least not in terms of the energy used to heat the space.  How many energy managers have access to the sorts of controls that will let them provide heat and light only to the areas of the office that are actually being used?  Very few, I suspect.

We must do all we can to address the urgent problem of cold homes right now, but we must also look to the future, and ensure that the steps we take now set us on the right track.  The heat-related elements of the economic stimulus package, announced by the Chancellor in July, are a good start but they are nowhere near enough.  They address the immediate crisis but do not yet set us on a path to full decarbonisation of heating.

Some may argue that we cannot do much more, as we don’t yet know the ‘best’ way to decarbonise our heat.  Is it with electrification, or by using hydrogen? Is it with individual heating systems or using district heating?  How much energy efficiency in buildings is enough?  These are to some extent valid questions, because we don’t yet know all the answers.  But we cannot let the quest for the perfect plan paralyse us.  If we do, then our perfect storm will drown us. 

We can act now in areas where the choices are clear. We know for example that investing in high fabric energy performance delivers more healthy buildings and keeps all our options open for zero carbon heat supply.  We know that heat pumps can be a good option in more rural areas and that heat networks make sense for new developments.

But how can we ensure that early action happens where it is most appropriate and that it engages energy users, so that they see a positive change that they are happy to participate in? 

Government must enable more local energy planning and programmes: getting people involved in deciding how to decarbonise their local area is a good way to build consent.  And companies in the low carbon heat supply chains need to sell something that is better than the current system, which we all know does not deliver the heat services we want.  There are promising signs: the Prospering from the Energy Revolution demonstrators; the Energy Systems Catapult work on Heat as a Service; our work at the ADE on zoning for heat and energy efficiency.  We need to learn from this work and build the policy framework to support more of it, and we need to do it now.

The UK Citizens Climate Assembly reported earlier this month, and called for the economic recovery from COVID-19 to help drive the move to net zero carbon emissions.  Four in five of the EI’s members surveyed for the recent Energy Barometer agree.  If we grasp this clear opportunity to respond when people want to be engaged, by asking them to help define what they want from their heat system and offering them new products and services to deliver this, we can ride the wave to calmer, healthier, net zero waters.

Dr Joanne Wade OBE is a Trustee and Fellow of the Energy Institute (EI) and Chief Strategic Advisor at the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE).  She is speaking today at Heat & Decentralised Energy 2020: Levelling up with local energy.

Originally published by Future Net Zero on 23 September 2020.

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