12 Jun 2020 .

If we are to have a planet that is habitable for future generations, we should be decarbonising a city the size of Sheffield every 16 weeks.

Sheffield Map Article

“More electricity from renewables than fossil fuels”

“Over a month without coal”

These statements could sound like the case for renewable energy is closed, and we can now coast forward into a low carbon future. The reality is very different. In 2019 the UK was 79% dependent on energy from fossil fuels [1]. This record “low” was after decades of really hard work by the renewable electricity sector. This work managed to drop fossil fuel use by just 10% from the highs at the start of the century.

The reality is that we just don’t use that much electricity when compared with other forms of energy: we use twice as much energy in heating than we do electricity. The majority of the energy we use — and the majority of our greenhouse gas emissions — are from the gas boilers that we use to heat our homes. It’s also a major source of poor air quality. 

So what have we done about the emissions from heating? Well, we have done quite a lot. There are low carbon district heat networks from Cornwall to Shetland. And there are heat pumps, anaerobic digestors, biomass boilers and geothermal wells in our cities, towns and rural communities. Unfortunately, we have done nowhere near enough. In the UK, 92% of our heating and cooling still comes from fossil fuels, and we lack a credible plan for addressing this crisis. The technology is not the problem. Finland has around a 1,000,000 heat pump installations; the UK, a nation 10 times the size, has installed 60,000 over the last 10 years.

We need a plan now more than ever. If we are to have a planet which is habitable for future generations, we should be decarbonising a city the size of Sheffield every 16 weeks. This plan needs a whole system view for heat. To start with, we need to use less through the installation of efficiency measures and improve our housing stock. These measures would have a meaningful impact on fuel poverty, much more than freezing bills when our fossil fuels are already the cheapest in western Europe. Building efficiency will also open up deployment of low-carbon heating systems, as heat pumps and low-carbon heat networks do not work very well in draughty inefficient buildings. This is why Finland can deploy so many heat pumps — they have significantly better housing stock.

In the absence of a plan from central Government, Natural Power has been working with its clients to develop its own plans for a low carbon heat future. This involves setting clear strategic goals and timescales and then developing a plan to achieve those goals. The change does not happen overnight, and significant effort is needed up front to baseline current energy use and assess building condition. Once this information is available, then a fact based, data driven approach to the decarbonisation of heat becomes possible through building fabric improvement, efficient control systems, operating parameter optimisation and, ultimately, low-carbon heat networks and heat pumps.

[1] table 1.3 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/total-energy-section-1-energy-trends

Andy Yuill, senior renewable heat manager