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.

“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.

COP 21 – Success or Failure

This blog was written by Richard Hillyard, a Senior Environmental Consultant

This blog was written by Richard Hillyard, a Senior Environmental Consultant

Well, we have a climate change agreement for 2020 and beyond in the Paris Accord, approved this weekend.  But is this an adequate level of progress needed to seriously tackle the problem of climate change?  Compared to 6 years ago and the utter failure in Copenhagen, first glance suggests yes, but it’s not perfect.

Two weeks ago leaders from around the world gathered for probably the most important and significant international government conferences of our time, COP21. Prior to these talks, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), campaigning organisations, environmentalists and individuals from all over the world took to the streets to protest and generate an atmosphere of urgency for a strong positive agreement to be achieved.

COP21 started with an inspiring speech of HRH Prince of Wales calling to arms the politicians of the world to take responsibility and deliver an agreement that will start the progress to reduced CO2 emissions and planetary stability. “On an increasingly crowded planet, humanity faces many threats, but none is greater than climate change. It magnifies every hazard and tension of our existence… It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to remain healthy, and safe from extreme weather, to manage the natural resources that support our economies, and avert the humanitarian disaster of mass migration and increasing conflict.”

This was followed by leaders of each country all making the same points, using strong rhetoric, all pointing out the obvious and what the informed already know.  The rhetoric from the politicians had a passion and sincerity on a level that I had not heard before.  Could Paris and COP21 be the success the world and its people need it to be?

Barack Obama, a driving force in these discussions, determined to leave behind a Presidential legacy before he steps down, not worried about re-election stated “the future is on that we have the power to change – right here, right now… One of the enemies we will be fighting is cynicism – the notion that we can’t do anything about climate change” urging a “common purpose [for a] world that is not marked by conflict but by co-operation”, concluding “Lets go to work.”

One of the few blemishes being David Cameron stating, “what would we say to our grandchildren if we failed. We would have to say it was too difficult, they would reply, well what was so difficult?… How can we argue that it’s difficult when in London alone there’s 5 trillion of funds under management and we haven’t already begun to generate the private finance that is possible to help tackle climate change?”

Highly contentious in my view, as it is him and his government that are cutting financial support for clean and renewable energy and instead pushing for shale gas fracking with a very questionable UK energy policy.

Following the opening day, the media lost interest and there was practically no coverage in the mainstream media during the 2 weeks of discussions.  However, from what was available, it was clear there was a hive of activity between the main discussions, informal meetings and fringe campaigns that appear to have been running 24/7. Such is the complexity over agreement of document text, working groups were giving paragraphs to negotiate with each country.

From the start, the French leadership were doing their job perfectly, they communicated a sense of direct urgency and urged the UN to deliver an approved agreement.  In the latter part of  the second week the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ represented, a group of 100 countries, who have been working in the wings secretly for half a year. They helped to push policy agreements through late in the day and on Saturday the world finally got to hear what was agreed.

Not only a commitment to limit global warming to 2oC change, but also to aim to reduce it further to 1.5oC.  This is highly ambitious, yet committed unilateral agreed target., seeing as the world is already heading to a 1oC degree increase in global temperature, limiting it by another half a degree is some target to have agreed.

There are a few challenges with this target, and where the Paris Accord shows cracks, there is no time frame except for ‘second half of the century’ and there are no real mechanisms agreed to ensure delivery of this target, just a promise.  But this is a start, to seriously tackle climate change and hopefully the beginning of releasing the world from its fossil fuel addition.

The agreement includes a legally binding 5-year review of countries targets, and the ability for them to improve their objectives to work towards a low carbon future.   However, 5 years is a long time, long enough for the world leaders not to be in power next time around and be held accountable.  Considering the target of 1.5 degrees, this time frame is not feasible, the reviews are important and are legally binding but should have been annually or every 2 years to ensure targets and commitments are being delivered in a time frame that will actually limit temperature increases. Additionally, how will this be policed and by whom to ensure accountability by nations?

It is also worth noting that the terms ‘fossil fuels’, ‘oil’, ‘coal’, and ‘gas’ do not appear once in the text of the Paris Accord. It looks like corporate lobbying has played a part in the delivery of this final text, which is a real shame as the document should of at least acknowledged the link between the use of these finite resources, their link to GHG emissions and climate change.

Developing countries already receiving financial aid for assisting them with the effects of climate change, all feel they need further support from the countries already causing climate change and in many cases rightly so. This was a contentious area in the negotiations and Saudi Arabia caused a lot of problems due to their economy largely dependent on oil.  But none the less, an agreement of $100bn base line annual aid would be made available.  Many NGOs and commentators believe this to be a significant failure in the process as more help is needed from the developing world to mitigate the effects as well as evolve their economies to the new low carbon energy infrastructure needed.

Listening to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, their Prime Minister, Francois Hollande, and head of UN, Ban Ki-moon speaking on Saturday morning was for me emotional, are we on the brink something truly incredible as they would have us believe or is the Paris Accord another ‘empty promise’ with no substance to actually deliver?  In the hours and days that have passed, I have had time to reflect and take it all in, I am optimistic and definitely more positive about the international political landscape in this area than I have been for a number of years.  COP21 has managed to get an agreement from nearly 200 countries and this should be applauded long with the target and legally binding reviews.

As Ban Ki-Moon stated, there had to be compromise, no one got 100% of what each country wanted at the start of the negotiations.  I think this is also true from the environmental campaigning, activist and NGO perspective with the agreement not delivering on a level that many believe is required, not going in to detail on how targets would be achieved and not committing enough to help those who will suffer first and most with the effects of climate change.

Wholesale system change doesn’t happen over night, we know this and I believe no matter what would have been agreed in Paris, to many, myself included, it would not have been enough and open for criticism.

Expectation is high and its easy to pick holes in the agreement.  What needs to done, is to reflect and look at the outcomes differently – There is an agreement approved, there is a target agreed, there are legally binding elements and there is some financial aid. I would of taken that 2 weeks ago and I think many others would.

Paris and COP 21 is not the end of the road when it comes to climate change, it is the beginning of the next part of our worlds environmental and climate journey.  The targets are in place, the leadership of the world is agreed that limiting GHG emissions is critical to success.  In fact just 24 hours after COP 21, the UK governments energy policy is already being scrutinised by politicians and media, an early indication of positivity from the Paris talks.

It is now up to us, the environmentalists, the activist and the environmentally considered to continue to drive for delivery against promises, hold those who fail to account and keep on the pressure to those who stand in the way of climate revolution, at the same time, applaud and celebrate where there have been successes and victories. The optimist in me tells me that Paris and COP21 was one of those victories and successes. So let’s embrace it and make it work for our future and the planet.

This blog post was written by Richard Hillyard MSc. Pg Dip. BA(Hons). AIEMA. Richard is a Senior Environmental Consultant at a major international property management company with 13 years environmental and energy experience, including the provision of CRC, ESOS, EED, EUETS compliance, CDP and Carbon Standard Reporting as well as EMS implementation and management. Prior to this, Richard was part of the FM consultancy team with BSRIA and also holds a MSc in Environmental Decision Making.

Renewable Energy – The Vital Missing Link

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For years, renewable energy, especially solar power and wind, has offered the tantalising prospect of almost zero carbon energy; tantalising because, even as costs fall, solar and wind are inherently unreliable, especially in temperate climates such as those that we ‘enjoy ‘in regions like Western Europe, and much of North America not to mention most of the developed world.

While a lot of progress has been made in demand response, which manages the energy that we need to match that which is available at any given time, we need a cheap, safe and efficient way of storing electrical power. Up until now, storage of electrical power in particular has been expensive and inefficient, and sometimes a bit scary.

The electrical vehicle market of course already faces this problem in spades. Electric cars are never likely to become main-stream so long as they need to go through a lengthy recharge process every 200 miles or so. It is therefore no surprise that much of the running is being made by manufacturers of vehicle batteries.

Tesla’s announcement that it is moving into the home energy storage market could represent a significant step. Being able to store electrical power not only makes local wind and solar power generation more practicable, it could also be invaluable in the many areas of the world where the grid is unreliable or virtually non-existent.

The biggest barrier, at least initially,  is likely to be the price tag. The 7kW battery which could, for example power a laptop for two days, or run one full cycle of a washing machine, or boil 10 kettles, will cost $3,000 to buy: That’s a very pricey home laundry service, and a frighteningly expensive cup of coffee, especially if you only need to use it occasionally.  The 10kW version represents slightly better value.

At this stage this is surely going to appeal only to wealthier individuals living away from a reliable grid, or those willing to pay to make a green gesture.  However, as with other technology initially aimed at the ‘smart home’ we may well find that much of the demand is actually from businesses. If you are running a business, even a small one, then any loss of service can do you immense damage. If an investment of a few thousand pounds or dollars can help guarantee that you will keep running, then it may well seem like an attractive return on investment.”

A further significant sign is Tesla’s announcement of an alliance with the international Energy Intelligence software supplier EnerNOC, which already has a presence in the USA, Canada, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Ireland, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Ultimately, success for energy storage in buildings, as in vehicles is likely to hinge on the two Cs: cost and capacity. It is a familiar catch 22 situation with most new and emerging technologies, where the market is waiting for the price to fall, but, other things being equal, production costs will only fall once you have achieved  real economies of scale.  The other factors that could influence the market are regulation, requiring builders or building owners to make provision for storage, or someone willing to take a loss leading initiative.

Safety concerns will also need to be allayed, given problems that have occurred with various types of battery technology, whether in laptops or vehicles. Storing a lot of energy in a very small space, inside the home is always going to raise concerns. And while batteries may offer the most promising option at the moment, other forms of energy storage might prove more effective in the end.

Still, the paradox is that sometimes problems get solved precisely because they are so big. The whole direction that the world is moving in, the growing realisation that we need to slash CO2 emissions,  demands cheap, efficient, safe energy storage. It seems likely that companies like Tesla, along with the other major energy companies involved in energy storage  will continue to concentrate their fire power on this until a viable solution emerges. And for the first few who get this right, or even approximately right, the potential returns are huge.

For then we really will have found the missing link.

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