This year’s summit saw a range of specialists discussing how and when different lower carbon heat technologies should be used – if at all – in domestic, commercial and industrial buildings
The 2021 H&V News Low Carbon Heating Summit 2021 took place on October 14 – just days before the long-delayed Heat and Buildings Strategy is expected to be released. It was sponsored by Gemserv, Honeywell and Panasonic and held with the aim of considering the technology and energy aspects of providing cleaner heat.
Specialists working across the sector – from those involved in the installation and manufacture of heating equipment to the generation and supply of energy – all shared the view that a wide range of systems will be needed to decarbonise the country’s buildings.
However, the pertinent challenge for the strategy and all following policy will now be to understand how best to implement and scale up use of these different systems, according to numerous speakers. This must be done in a way that was affordable and sustainable in terms of environmental impacts.
A stick over carrot approach?
Among the themes of this year’s summit was whether it was down to the industry or even governments to be more prescriptive around how and when these different heat solutions should be used.
A common consensus for speakers was that building consumer awareness and confidence to make informed choices was going to be vital.
Laura Bishop, chair of the Ground Source Heat Pump Association said there was a definite role for heat pumps, hydrogen and district solutions in the move away from an existing reliance on natural gas boilers. Other options such as efficient direct electric heat may also be an important technology in homes and buildings.
“There is a place for everything,“ she said during a session about the different merits of hydrogen or heat pumps to create net zero homes in just under 30 years.
Ms Bishop argued that while engineers often had the technical capabilities to understand and discern between the different approaches to heat, there were significant challenges to give objective information to the public to help them understand the best choices for decarbonisation.
She noted this was particularly changing for transforming the UK housing stock due to uncertainty about both the cost and timeline for availability of hydrogen heat systems
“In my opinion as an engineer, do we really want to be producing a very energy intensive and water intensive fuel that we are then going to burn in boilers to make heat for our homes at around 21 deg C? Do we want to do that, it doesn’t seem like a very good use of fuel. It might be better to use it for vehicles or for industry.”
Low carbon choice
The concept of reducing the issue to a binary choice of heat pumps vs hydrogen – which was the name of the panel session at the summit – was viewed as creating problems about the changes required in homes, Ms Bishop said.
She said, “It’s not helpful in that the media pits one technology against the other and people reading it can’t distinguish the facts unfortunately.”
Walter Stephens, Panasonic’s sales manager for Air to Water products in Ireland and a director of the Irish Heat Pump Association, reiterated a widely held industry view that there is no silver bullet solution for decarbonising heat for its many different uses.
He was particularly critical of the argument for the continued use of combustion systems to heat homes when heat pumps could be used affordably to keep homes at a constant temperature.
Mr Stephens said that hydrogen presented a number of unknowns at present around whether it can be sustainably produced. He added, “I believe that hydrogen should be used for the likes of transportation and areas like that. For houses, I do not see the benefit myself.”
Klara Ottosson, an analyst for the Delta-EE consultancy specialising in low carbon heat policy and innovation across Europe, said recent research she had conducted has shown that hydrogen ready heat technologies were near to coming to the market.
Ms Ottosson said, “There will be hydrogen ready boilers ready to purchase in the next one to three years from a number of manufacturers. But the big concern that Walter and Laura have addressed is when will we have enough hydrogen to fuel those boilers?”
“I think it’s too early to say whether or not there will be hydrogen for heating at a large scale. I’m sure there will be some local clusters and district clusters where it will make a lot of sense, but I think it’s too early to say whether or not we will see a national scale in the UK.”
The UK government announced earlier this year in its Hydrogen Strategy that it would be waiting until 2026 to take a decision on the potential role for hydrogen use in domestic heat, as opposed to industrial demand, while it waits on the findings of a range of research.
The case for hydrogen
From an end user, more consumer-focused perspective, Ms Ottosson said that there were some notable benefits in creating a domestic role for hydrogen heating. This was largely built around an argument about reducing the scale of changes needed in homes.
She said, “It does have benefits for the consumer due to the simplicity of the system. They wouldn’t have to get used to a whole new system. They would have a regular boiler that they know how it works.”
With the UK government formally committed to introduce 600,000 heat pumps a year from 2028, the panel also noted that several adoption barriers linked to energy cost and electricity capacity would needed to be addressed in the country to ensure the technology was viable for mass use.
Ms Ottosson noted that another issue was around building awareness and trust in heat pump technologies that would be important to get sufficient consumer uptake and acceptance at scale.
The 2021 summit was opened with a keynote speech from Mike Foster, a former MP and now chief executive of the Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA) trade organisation. A strident advocate for lower carbon gas remaining a vital part of domestic heat and power, Mr Foster argued that a reliance solely on electric heat and heat pumps would not be a realistic way forward for a market such as the UK. This is a market that traditionally had a constant year round demand for electricity as opposed to the seasonal peaks seen for natural gas due to heat demand in colder months, he said.
Mr Foster said, “On top of that, other than having to pay for the generational cost of electricity, there are the costs involved with network distribution and transmission of that power as well. So, arguably a more balanced approach is one we should be looking for.”
He argued that new build properties that are likely to be increasingly designed for heat pump use highlighted the clear importance of the technology, as opposed to cases where homes may need to be retrofitted to better support electrification.
In a bold pronouncement, Mr Foster said he expected gas heat to remain the dominant source of heat for UK homes – albeit it a slightly reduced rate from homes currently using natural gas from heat.
“If we went form a situation where 85 per cent of homes are currently on the gas grid, where do I think this will be on the hydrogen grid? My guess is about 70 per cent – that is just a ball park figure.”
Mr Mason also saw a role for hybrid solutions in certain properties.
He added, “That combination of a boiler and heat pump working in tandem will have a role to apply. No one technology will dominate in the sense of how this is how we are going to do it. But the closest we have to a dominant vector will be hydrogen in my opinion.”
Heat networks set for ten-fold increase
The summit also heard about a significant increase in the scale of work to develop heat network use across the UK. This will be backed with the launch over the next year of new finance and incentives to move the district heat sector towards increasingly low carbon approaches and technologies.
Ilias Vazaios, director of the low Carbon Unit of the specialist consultancy Gemserv – the headline sponsor of the summit – noted that heat networks continued to get very little coverage in media compared to hydrogen and heat pumps.
However, he argued this was likely to change with ambitions to expand the number of individual users connected to heat networks to five million by 2050 from around 500,000 at present.
Mr Vazaios said that while heating is responsible for more than a third of UK carbon emissions, there had been relatively little progress in addressing this over the last ten years.
He said, “There is a strong need to accelerate this and heat networks are absolutely key.”
Sam Shea, head of policy and engagement with Gemserv, noted that both the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the UK government have accepted that heat pumps are anticipated to account for a total of 18 per cent of UK heat demand by 2050.
Efforts to meet this target were not expected to be an easy task, according to Ms Shea.
She said, “Heat networks have long build out rates and can often be complex projects to pull together as they involve multiple stakeholders across the supply chain and multiple users.”
“We really need to see progress in the 2020s on this target. We cannot wait any longer because of the project complexity and short timescales we have to deliver low carbon heat for homes and buildings.”
Gemserv has argued that a large number of projects and support work was now coming to fruition.
Ms Shea said, “We’re seeing a range of different projects coming together all the time with innovative low carbon solutions using a range of different technologies.”
This development work will be backed by new approaches to regulation and consumer protections, along with a consultation that is already underway on heat network zoning and also projects to develop the skills base to maintain and operate networks.
In the second part of this recap – which will go live on the site on Monday (October 18) – we hear from experts working on the infrastructure and energy delivery side of the low carbon heat challenge. Experts at the National Grid for example suggest that official predictions that just five per cent of the country will be using gas heat supplied by hydrogen from 2050 may be a little low of the eventual figure.
In response, work is now underway to ensure a more flexible approach to gas supply and generation that can potentially be scaled up or down to address the realities of low carbon heat over the next 30 years. Join us next week to read more.