Heat Pumps and Heat Waves: How overheating complicates ending gas in the UK

by Dr Aaron Gillich | Associate Professor and Director of the BSRIA LSBU Net Zero Building Centre

We have entered what many are calling the decisive decade on climate action. Among the most critical decisions that the UK faces this decade is how it will eliminate carbon emissions from heat. Heat accounts for over a third of our emissions, and over 80% of our buildings are linked to the gas grid. There is no pathway to Net Zero that doesn’t include ending the use of gas as we know it in the UK.

Given the size of the UK gas grid, no single technology or energy vector can replace it. We will need a combination of clean electricity and carbon‐free gas such hydrogen or biogas, delivered by a range of enabling technologies such as heat pumps and heat networks. And of course an extremely ambitious retrofit agenda that reduces the demand for heat in the first place.

The UK is investing widely in low carbon heating innovation. That innovation is essential, but is also unlikely to include any blue‐sky breakthroughs that aren’t currently on the table. In other words, the menu of low carbon heating technology options is set, and this decisive decade will be about deciding what goes best where, and how to ensure a just and equitable heat transition.

Low-carbon heating options

Of all the low‐carbon heating options available, low carbon heat pumps are the most efficient and scalable option that is market ready and can respond to the urgency of climate change this decade. The UK has set a laudable target of installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028. Many have criticized this figure as unrealistic, but I believe that the target is highly achievable, and represents a pace that is in line with past transitions such as ‘the Big Switch’ that put us on the gas grid in the first place.

This race to replace gas in the UK has been widely discussed. As have the many barriers that face heat pump deployment in the UK. What I’ve heard discussed far less are the links between heating in the winter and overheating in the summer. Over the next decade, the end of gas will present both a threat and an opportunity to improve both the winter and summer performance of our building stock.

The threat of climate change is clear. The end of gas increases this threat because gas has allowed the UK to obscure poor building performance, and poor building knowledge for so long. Cheap gas has enabled a ‘set it and forget it’ approach to many building systems, and allowed us to maintain reasonable standards of comfort in most buildings despite very poor fabric performance. The irony is that this poor winter performance actually helps reduce the risk of overheating in the summer, as the leaky and poorly insulated buildings can more easily shed excess heat. It has been widely reported that many newer, better insulated buildings actually face an increased risk of summer overheating.

Replacing gas with heat pumps, or any other low carbon heat source, should be accompanied by ambitious retrofit to improve energy efficiency and reduce heat loss. There are many that argue heat pumps in fact require extensive fabric retrofit in order to function in most UK buildings. This is highly debatable and will be explored in detail in follow-up writings. Regardless, demand reduction and a fabric first approach is a good idea for its own sake.

Replacing gas with heat pumps, or any other low carbon heat source, should be accompanied by ambitious retrofit to improve energy efficiency and reduce heat loss.

But reducing the heat loss in winter will likely trap heat in the summer, presenting a conflict. The UK currently experiences over 20,000 excess winter cold deaths and around 2,000 heat related deaths in summer. It was previously thought that the increased temperatures from climate change would decrease winter cold deaths, but more recent work has shown that due to the increases in extreme weather events at both ends of the spectrum, it is far more likely that winter cold deaths will remain at similar levels, and summer heat deaths will increase dramatically under climate change.

We must use the transition from gas to low carbon heating as an opportunity to better understand our buildings. Many of 600,000 heat pumps we install by 2028 will be in new build, but up to half will need to be from existing homes.

Retrofitting a heat pump is also the time to think about not only how to improve energy efficiency for the winter but how to reduce summer overheating as well. Despite much effort towards a whole‐house approach to retrofit, most work remains quite siloed. Energy efficiency and heating installations are largely in separate supply chains, and the building physics knowledge to carry out an overheating risk assessment is even less likely to sit with the same project team. Overheating is also very poorly captured by the building regulations and planning process.

A holistic approach

The last few years has seen a growing awareness of overheating risk and an emergence of increasingly easy to use assessment tools. A very small fraction of UK homes have comfort cooling. Retrofitting a comfort cooling solution typically requires costly and complex changes to distribution systems. However, there are a range of low cost options, including using local extract fans to create interzonal air movement, or using night purges and thermal mass. Blinds are also incredibly useful, but often misused in summer, and can also help reduce heat loss in winter. There are also ways to use local microclimate features such as shaded areas or the North side of the building to bring in slightly cooler air from outside and reduce peak temperatures.

Improving the air tightness and fabric performance of our buildings to address heating in the winter will change how we implement these solutions for the summer. They require not only careful thought at the design stage, but also strong communication to help end users operate them properly. Simply opening a window is unlikely to help if the outside air is warmer than inside.

A significant problem is that there are insufficient drivers to force this type of holistic approach to design, performance, and communication. It is so often said that we need stronger policies in the area of heat and retrofit, and this is no doubt true. But while we await these policies it is incumbent upon each of us in this sector to share and collaborate as widely as possible, and use whatever influence we have over a given project to encourage a fair and forward looking solution.

In summary, the availability of cheap gas has allowed us to escape having to understand our buildings in much detail. Climate change is the catalyst for an untold level of change in our lives that we are going to start to truly experience in the coming decade. Heating and overheating are coupled issues that must be solved together. We must use the end of gas as an opportunity to understand our buildings better, and implement solutions to climate change that work across seasons, or we risk trading one problem for another.

In summary, the availability of cheap gas has allowed us to escape having to understand our buildings in much detail.

UK heat pump market has weathered Covid-19 challenges. Coherent policy support is now needed to unlock its full potential.

by Krystyna Dawson, BSRIA Commercial Director

BSRIA has released its latest global heat pump market reports, including the eagerly awaited report on the status of the UK heat pump market.

Last spring, deep uncertainty set in across the markets as lockdowns in many countries disrupted trading. There was fear within the heat pump industry of a significant slowdown in what had previously shown dynamic market growth.

Indeed, the global heat pump market posted a decrease of 1.5% in 2020. However, performance varied across regions: with 12% market growth year-on-year, Europe has been at the forefront; the UK also saw positive development with heat pump sales increasing by 9.2% in 2020.  

Green Homes Grant

UK heat pump market sales were helped by the RHI and the Green Homes Grant scheme in 2020. The latter has proven to be important for the market, which has seen sustained growth in the refurbishment segment despite the number of installations in new buildings stalling due to the lower level of new home completions.

However, heat pump installation still represents a major challenge in existing homes. The ongoing review of Part L and Part F of building regulations offer hope that refurbishments in homes and buildings will be conceived with low carbon heating in mind, but the review’s outcomes are yet to become a legal requirement.

Moreover, even though there is market potential for a higher number of heat pump installations in existing homes, the government has, so far, been unable to unlock it. The Saturday 27th March announcement of the closing of the Green Home Grant scheme to new applicants by 31st March 2021 has been yet another example of the disappointing approach to deployment of energy efficiency measures and heat pumps.

UK heat pump market: Achieving a net zero carbon economy

Heat pumps are among the technologies the government has identified as key to achieving a net zero carbon economy by 2050. The Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for the UK Green Industrial Revolution includes the target to deploy 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028.

The UK saw around 37,000 heat pumps sold in 2020. The extra £300 million in funding, moved from the soon-to-be defunct Green Homes Grant to local authorities to enable energy efficiency upgrades for lower income households, may bring additional installations. But even if all 30,000 applicable homes were fitted with heat pumps, the numbers are insufficient to sustain hope of reaching the PM’s ambitious target.. There is potential for more heat pump installations in existing homes, and the interest in heat pumps is growing among home and building owners. The heat pump industry is also working at full speed to deliver innovative products that respond to end-user expectations and environmental challenges.

HVAC industry skills gap

However, unless demand from existing homes and buildings is unlocked at full scale, and until real attention is paid to the sufficient availability of a skilled workforce, the heat pump market will struggle to see the acceleration needed to reach the government target and make a difference in the level of carbon emissions from UK homes and buildings.

Coherent policy and financial support are needed to match the readiness to act on both industry and consumer sides. Integration of heat pumps in a home or a commercial building requires a holistic approach where design and affordability should be considered to deliver carbon savings, cost savings and a healthy and comfortable environment.

“Clean Energy Revolution” puts building and product standards back on the Federal agenda

by Krystyna Dawson

The inauguration of the new President-elect, Joe Biden, marks the start of a period that could bring a substantial shift in US building-related markets. Air conditioning, heating, ventilation and controls are likely to face requirements from policy and market demand that will change dynamics in several segments.

Net Zero Emissions

With the President-elect’s Clean Energy Revolution announced during the campaign, the federal green agenda is set to make a strong comeback. President Biden signalled his intention to re-join the Paris Agreement, notably on the first day of his presidency, and outlined a national goal of net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050. Although less ambitious than the progressive Green New Deal target (net-zero emissions by 2030), with Congress now on his side he can venture putting his intention into law.

The President has promised a nearly USD 2 trillion investment plan, much of which is due to support green initiatives. He also promised to work towards achieving decarbonised electricity by 2035. Although during the campaign he was careful not to promote the ban of gas and oil fracking, his Clean Energy Revolution includes plans to improve energy efficiency in buildings and houses, and promises high investment in R&D related to zero carbon technologies to produce cutting-edge equipment for internal markets and export.

Even if not all of it might come to fruition, there is certainly a significant change of direction ahead in all industry sectors, including energy and HVAC in buildings.

HVAC Industry

During the Trump presidency, the federal government kept progress in energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment at a low level. This has been countered by initiatives in several states, like California, Vermont, Washington, Colorado Texas and Hawaii, which have been setting their own efficiency standards for a variety of products. Federal standards nevertheless cover a wide range of HVAC products. Hence, the re-activation of ambitious federal efficiency programs will be important for industry and consumers.

California will likely increase its influence on federal decision making, not only as Kamala Harris’ home state, but because of its leading set of environmental regulations and standards. Its Title 24 Building Standards Code that sets requirements for “energy conservation, green design, construction and maintenance, fire and life safety, and accessibility” that apply to the “structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems” in buildings might provide a template for wider adoption. The experience the state is gathering on the application of a variety of solar and heat pump combinations can support the uptake of these technologies on a larger scale.

Green Agenda

With the push towards energy efficiency in buildings, technologies that support their smart operation are likely to see dynamic uptake. Currently, smart buildings represent a niche market across the US, with just some cities in the North-East, Texas or California seeing their increased emergence. They usually belong to corporations who are keen to emphasise their green credentials, aspiring to achieve high sustainability certificates through building sustainability assessments like LEED or WELL.

The impact of the federal policy change on the building HVAC and controls market will not be instant, but waiting for it to become obvious might have serious consequences for market players.  The unfolding of the green agenda by the federal government will strengthen ongoing efforts of market stakeholders and demand from consumers as environmental awareness creates favourable conditions for the shift towards efficient, environmentally friendly products.

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