Martin Fahey looks at the importance of heat pumps in helping us reach a sustainable future

According to the independent body, the Committee on Climate Change CCC, heating buildings in the UK accounted for 19% of the UK’s overall emissions in 2017.

What this means for the country is that we need to adopt a range of lower carbon solutions to reduce the emissions from heating buildings.

Currently, only around 4.5% of heat in buildings comes from low-carbon sources, mostly biomass.

However, the CCC is also pointing to the future with a cleaner grid helping increase the attraction of renewable heating such as heat pumps. The CCC predicts one million sales of air source heat pumps each year by 2030.

An array of solutions, each contributing in part will be the way forward.

Martin Fahey Martin Fahey Head of Sustainability

Cleaner and even greener

If we are to meet our targets for carbon reduction in the UK, it doesn’t make any sense to continue to expand a grid that is reliant on fossil fuels.

The only grid we should be expanding is the electricity one and looking to use a greater array of renewable generation technologies to power this.

As an island nation we should be deploying greater solutions that use tidal and wave energy and it’s promising to see we are currently constructing the world largest tidal energy plant.

Wind power, is an example of where the UK excels as sixth in the world and the largest in Europe with 20.7 Gigawatts of capacity, equivalent to powering 14.8 million homes a year, and needs to continue to be deployed.

Cleaning up the hydrogen

Hydrogen is often touted as one of the fuels of the future, but few people realise that the creation of hydrogen is currently a very carbon intensive process.

As of 2016, 96% of global hydrogen production uses fossil fuels with water electrolysis accounting for the rest.

This situation needs to completely reverse with generation through electrolysis coming from renewable energy sources to enable what is referred to as ‘Green Hydrogen’.

So, while hydrogen might be seen by many in the utilities sector as a viable solution for decarbonising the grid, it is currently heavily reliant on fossil fuels to produce on a meaningful scale.

A decarbonised grid

One of the biggest concerns in moving to decarbonised grids is whether the existing infrastructure could cope with the new low-carbon solutions.

The existing electricity grid would need to be upgraded to handle all the demands placed on it, including the electrification of transport.

Overall, the infrastructure as it stands will only support some further level of electrification. For a hydrogen-based system, existing power stations using gas would need to be converted into steam methane reforming facilities, continuing the need for fossil fuels to be used.

In addition, as an odourless and colourless gas that has a near invisible flame, several chemicals would need to be added to the fuel to make it safe for use.

This adds another process and complexity, likely adding to the cost of implementation and reducing the overall efficiency of the fuel.

Then the grid itself needs to be able to convey hydrogen to where it is needed and devices at the point of use either need to be replaced or modified.

Future Homes Standard

The Chancellor recently accepted advice from the CCC to support low-carbon heating of UK homes with his pledge to advance the decarbonisation of our current natural gas distribution network and end fossil-fuel based heating in all new houses from 2025.

This new Future Homes Standard will help make low carbon and renewable heating the norm in the residential market.

The pledge by the Chancellor to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, is laudable and ambitious.

But what does this mean for the UK and the multiple people involved: homeowners, businesses, installers, house builders, building developers and contractors?

Cutting greenhouse gases

While there are several alternatives to natural gas, few are viable to help the UK reach its carbon reduction goals at the pace required.

With buildings accounting for nearly a fifth of our greenhouse gas emissions, this would be an excellent place to start and new homes are one area that the Chancellor has clearly earmarked as a target from 2025 onwards.

Electricity will be the driver behind the move to a low-carbon grid. The carbon intensity of electricity has more than halved since 2012 and is projected to fall by over 50% again by 2030. Electricity can also be the power provider behind a technology that many users are looking to as the ideal alternative to gas-heating in homes.

Heat pumps are a major part of the solution

The CCC has determined that heat pumps are the leading low-carbon option for buildings not connected to the gas grid in its report UK housing: Fit for the future? It found that heat pumps can deliver 25-85 tCO2 savings per home over a 60-year lifetime of that home.

A heat pump can reduce carbon emissions by 90% over the lifetime of a building, compared to one currently using gas as its main heating source.

By installing low-carbon heating from the outset into new homes, the cost of connecting to the gas grid can be avoided. New homes will rightly require less energy to heat and existing homes will need to be improved to reduce the heat they need.

This has to be the right approach; why generate and ultimately use and waste heat that you did not need to use?

Prioritise awareness 

The CCC report stated that the Government should prioritise the roll out of heat pumps to the one million homes currently using high-carbon fossil fuels in off-gas areas where LPG or oil tanks are common.

However, there is a fundamental lack of awareness of the benefits of heat pumps that could be resulting in their low uptake.

Other concerns that are symptomatic of low uptake include financing constraints, concerns around disruption and difficulty in finding trusted installers with the right skills.

Decarbonise our homes

According to the report from the CCC, “UK homes are not fit for the future. The quality, design and use of homes across the UK must be improved now to address the challenges of climate change”.

A radical decarbonisation of not only the grid, but also the housing market is needed if we are to make a stand against climate change and its ramifications, and ultimately deliver a better quality of life.

With greater awareness, ignorance is no longer bliss and steps must be taken to deliver a more sustainable future, today.

Awareness of available solutions

There isn’t a single solution that is going to bring complete decarbonisation to the UK’s domestic heating infrastructure.

An array of solutions, each contributing in part will be the way forward.

For any of these solutions to succeed however, greater awareness of the benefits the technologies can bring is a must.

We need to keep in mind the pace of change that is required and the availability of the fuels being suggested.

We will all have electricity in our lives in the future, so, do we need to retain the need for fossil fuels for any longer than is absolutely necessary when there are viable alternatives out there?

Martin Fahey is Head of Sustainability at Mitsubishi Electric Living Environment Systems UK and coordinator of the company’s Green Gateway programme.