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Karen Fletcher looks at the demands on the grid for more and more electricity

With most of us (business and consumer alike) fixated on the ever-rising price of electricity, it has been easy to miss another problem on the horizon. There isn’t enough of it to go around.

It’s an issue that is already affecting housebuilders and commercial property developers. In summer, the BBC reported that some London boroughs could limit new home construction in the next few years because there isn’t enough electricity to power them.

One of the leading causes seems to be the development of local, or edge data centres, around towns and cities, which sap the grid of electricity.

For building services, that means saving energy – or re-using it

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Electric Logistics

Large-scale warehouses are also finding that increased demand across the electricity grid is making it harder to connect new sites.

As the logistics industry adopts advanced technologies such as robotics, their power use has increased. Add in charging points for the growing fleets of electric delivery vehicles, and it’s a problem that increases costs and causes significant delays in project approvals.

The UK’s Net Zero ambitions highlight the weaknesses in our electricity grid.

The truth is that developments in power-hungry data centres and the adoption of electric vehicles are happening faster than predicted.

Are we basing our green ambitions on a grid that isn’t ready yet?

Decarbonisation targets

The problem must be urgently addressed because of the UK’s decarbonised heating goals.

New homes are expected to switch from gas boiler heating systems from 2025, and other regulations, such as EPCs (Energy Performance Certificates), encourage commercial building owners to adopt electric heat pump technology for heating and Direct Hot Water.

But low-carbon heating, cloud computing and robust logistics services are equally important to the UK economy.

Letting these projects fight it out for connection to the grid isn’t a strategy that can continue.

The National Audit Office is currently looking into how we can balance our growing electricity demand with a switch to renewables (a report out is due before the end of 2022).

As the NAO states: “Decarbonising, while also meeting increased (electricity) demand, will require government to manage a range of complex challenges.” 

Use less energy

One of the most important factors for a successful transition will be to support the grid by being lean and green.

The energy hierarchy calls for energy efficient design of buildings, followed by energy efficient operation.

We can expect to hear more about ‘energy use intensity’ in buildings in future because it goes hand-in-hand with low carbon buildings.

The UK Green Building Council and other organisations are raising awareness about the importance of reducing energy demand in buildings -  and setting targets.

Save energy or re-use it

There will be a significant impact on HVAC design and use since these are all big energy users.

From a building services point of view, that means using every technique and technology to save energy – or re-use it.

For example, re-using heat energy ejected from cooling systems is possible by applying heat pump technologies on an ambient loop. It’s an ideal solution for mixed-use developments where retail and office buildings are situated close to apartments.  

Even relatively simple tech such as mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) could be more widely applied to reduce heat demand in domestic and commercial buildings.

Every kilowatt of energy we re-use and re-apply in a building means less pressure on the grid.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of CIBSE Journal and Modern Building Services