energy sustainability

Planning for renewable heat

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at renewable heat, which seems to me to be a rather overlooked aspect of green energy. We’ve looked at why it matters, and some of the sources of renewable heat. This week I thought I’d focus on how we might begin to strategise for a transition, what we might do as some first steps towards a nationwide shift.

For that I’m drawing on Pathways for Heat, a report from Policy Connect. As they see it, the chief energy task of the last Parliament was to decarbonise the electricity market. With that underway, it “calls on the next government to set heat as a priority for the coming decade.”

Here’s a summary of where we are at the moment:


As that summary shows, we’re talking about a major change. As with electricity, it will also be long term change, and we need to be working towards goals for 2030 and 2050. Four out of five buildings are heated with gas, and we have an extensive network to provide it every winter. It works very well, for which we should be grateful. But, since it is so well established and practically taken for granted, the search for alternatives immediately throws up a lot of things we don’t know.

There is, for example, little data on our building stock, on who is using what to heat their homes, and how efficient they are. There is no map for heat use, or where heat is produced. We know that district heating could be a big part of the solution, but the report calls it “the biggest piece of the jigsaw missing from the puzzle of future heat”. We will want to look at where there is waste heat from power stations or industry, and where it might be used.

So one of the first steps towards renewable heat is to build up an evidence base, and Pathways for Heat suggests it will take a decade to really understand where we are and what the opportunities might be. We have built our infrastructure to provide gas, not to provide heat, and that requires a change of mindset.

Naturally, another key element of any strategy is going to be energy efficiency. The lower our demand for heat, the easier it will be to deliver it sustainably, and we know how wasteful our homes are. We have some of the least efficient homes in Europe, and while there have been a variety of schemes to encourage households to insulate their homes, we haven’t cracked it yet. It’s not exactly a high profile issue in the election, but Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green Party all have ambitious goals in their manifestos. The Greens aim the highest, but the Lib Dems are the most creative in how they would do it, in my opinion.

Needless to say, new homes should be built to the highest efficiency standards, or we are just pushing the problem into the future rather than solving it. It is vital that standards for zero carbon homes aren’t watered down. We know how to build homes with little to no heating needs, and it is affordable to build them. There’s no excuse not to.

As we move towards a wholesale change, we will need some transition technologies. The obvious one to consider is we have the infrastructure for gas already in place, perhaps we can use it better. That would need ‘green gas’, such as biomethane. If it can be scaled, we could add green gas to the existing network as it is, lowering the carbon intensity of the system. Some see a similar role for hydrogen. Germany has experimented with hydrogen in the distribution network, but that’s not something ours could do at present. Closer to home, the next generation of boilers might be gas/electric hybrids that combine electric heat pumps with gas for top-up heat in winter.

In summary, a transition to renewable heat needs an efficiency drive, a commitment to zero carbon homes, and an awful lot of research and information gathering.

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