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Green Heat 1

I have often been less than impressed by reports from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) , which usually seems to take a conservative line on energy issues, but their new report on heating for buildings seems overall very well done, although with lapses. It makes the sensible point that we need to deal with the building envelop first, but also notes that most of the houses that will be lived in by 2050 have already been built, so we must look to remedial measures. It also notes that ‘Manchester isn’t Leipzig’, and looks at patterns of heating need and perceptions of comfort. It assumes we are talking about well insulated buildings, and familiar levels of comfort, and it reviews the energy supply options for supporting that.

It sets the scene by pointing out that ‘If space heating could be decoupled from water heating it would change the selection criteria for heating appliances and boilers. There would no longer be a need for the heating system (as opposed to the hot water system) to be on standby during summer months or to be capable of operating at a sufficiently high temperature to prevent Legionella developing in water systems. All domestic heating is currently thought of as low-grade heat requirement, but there is a case for distinguishing space heating as low grade and hot water as medium grade. A policy for heat should separate these two different uses’.

It looks at heat pumps as a possibility, but is not too convinced. ‘While the general reduction in carbon intensity of grid electricity makes the use of electric heating (direct or via a heat pump) more attractive, peak heat loads tend to coincide with peak electricity loads. There is, therefore, a significant likelihood of heating demand being met by high carbon electricity generation brought onto the system to meet peak loads over and above the capacity of low carbon generators’.

It goes on ‘Air source heat pumps have been rising in popularity for new build in the UK, but this is partly an effect of the way in which electrical energy is treated in the regulations that makes CO2 targets more lenient than for gas systems.’ While it admits that ‘Air source heat pumps integrate well with well insulated dwellings, if properly sized and installed,’ and it suggests that ‘micro-CHP complements and could balance some of the properties of heat pumps’, it also notes that ‘several reports discuss inadequacies of the application or system engineering in heat pump installations. It is clear that heat pumps are not forgiving if installed inappropriately.’

By contrast, it’s much happier will larger-scale communal system. ‘Communal air source heat pumps are an interesting area of development with some new configurations of systems coming to market. Central systems may be more efficient and are likely to offer much greater energy storage than do systems designed for individual household’.

It adds ‘Larger district systems, incorporating a CHP facility and providing heating are significantly more efficient than domestic level installations. This is because waste heat can be used in district heating after it has generated an element of electricity. Such district heat is therefore always of significantly lower CO2 emissions than any heat only production utilising the same fuel’. And that, it seems, includes domestic scale heat pumps.

The RAE does seem to been moving towards community- scaled system across the board. However, it is less happy with renewables. Although it sees some potential for bioenergy e.g for CHP/District Heating , it is not very impressed with solar, and overall treats renewables as problematic in terms of grid power supply, reverting to the traditional RAE line on the problems of intermittency and the delights of nuclear: ‘During the summer months, most of the night-time load could be provided by nuclear power with renewables providing additional power during the day’, while in winter ‘we would need sufficient renewables to guarantee 40GW during the evening peak. As wind, tides and the sun are intermittent, that would require significantly higher installed capacity of renewables or thermal back-up capacity, much of which would be unused for long periods in the summer’ making renewables uneconomic.

Nevertheless, it does look at smart grid /load management options which might change the situation radically, helping to deal with intermittency. A bit grudging, but at least there is now some recognition that a new interactive supply and demand system might be viable. It’s taken decades to get the community CHP/DH message across to the traditionalist engineers, so maybe it’s too early for idea of smart dynamic grids to have got through! And it may take even longer for them to give up on ‘baseload’ nuclear, which they still see as essential, rather than as getting in the way of a more interactive flexible system based on renewables ( which is the view emerging from Germany) .

However, as far as CHP/DH in concerned, the RAE is now full of praise. It says that ‘CHP plants, biomass combustion, and heat pumps are more efficient, reliable and cheaper at scales larger than a single dwelling. The costs of large scale heat pump installations per kW are a quarter of that for domestic-scale installations.’ It adds that ‘it is more efficient to use the available skills for fewer large systems than for many individual units’, and that, since energy storage will be needed ‘district heating systems have another important benefit – the mass of water in the underground pipes provides a heat store that evens out daily peaks and troughs in demand. This can be supplemented by hot water tanks to increase energy storage’. And taking it one step further, it points out that ‘well insulated hot water tanks or underground inter-seasonal thermal stores will be simpler to provide on a community basis given the small (and reducing) size of most UK homes’.

Some sense last! And DECC seem to be taking notice, in their new Heat strategy- see my next Blog.

‘Heat: degrees of comfort?’ Royal Academy of Engineering

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