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The biggest battle since VHS vs Betamax?

Fresh from our summit, CIPHE’s Paul Harmer set the scene for the low-carbon heating debate

According to the latest estimates, heat accounts for more than half of the UK’s domestic energy consumption. This places the heating industry squarely in the middle of the search for sustainable energy solutions.

The importance of finding an alternative to damaging fossil fuels is laid out in the Committee on Climate Change’s target of ‘net-zero’ by 2050.

To achieve this, it is widely acknowledged that the electrification of heat alongside development of hydrogen looks the most viable option to reduce carbon emissions and secure the future of the industry. However, while there is general agreement over the end-goal, there remains significant debate over the best solution.

Hydrogen, heat pumps, and everything in between

Many people position this as a contest between hydrogen and heat pumps, with parallels drawn with the Betamax vs VHS ‘format war’ of the late 1970s. However, we should not be pitting solutions against one another, in some quasi war that seeks the triumph of one over the other, because hydrogen boilers and heat pumps both have their pros and cons, and we need to ensure that we keep an open mind in our pursuit of green energy. Neither technology is the silver bullet to all our problems, and continued research and development will be critical to finding the answer.

It could be argued that the technology for heat pumps is now ready for implementation, but without more effective insulation of properties and the greener production of electricity, this alone is unlikely to see the UK hit its target to be net zero emissions by 2050.

By contrast, hydrogen boilers may arrive in the form of H2 ready boilers in the near future, which will require a changeover when 100% hydrogen gas is connected to the property, or we may see a transition with the use of hybrid boiler/heat pump technologies as a small step in the right direction. Either way, designers and installers need to move towards designing systems for low temperature heat emitters, such as underfloor heating, or even wall heating, which is common in Europe.

Research into the viability of hydrogen is ongoing, and there must be further investigation into how it is produced. The current method of steam methane reforming, which uses the Haber-Bosch process, is reliant on methane, carbon capture and storage, and requires significant investment in infrastructure in order to achieve ‘net-zero’ by 2050. The alternative method is to produce it through electrolysis, which involves splitting hydrogen from water, but this would require renewably sourced electricity.

It is also worth considering the amount of water that would be required to make enough hydrogen, given that for every kilogram created through electrolysis, it requires around nine litres of water. For 60 houses, that would mean 220,000 litres of water per year– equivalent to over 300 football pitches with a metre high of water.

Hydrogen, as a secondary clean energy, and renewable electricity are interchangeable, through the use of power-to-gas to power solutions. This gives the UK the ability to store seasonal renewable electricity from wind and solar during periods of low usage by splitting water using electrolysis.

Additional energy provision could come from development of solid-state batteries and super capacitor technology for electric vehicles. The stored energy in car batteries from millions of parked cars can then be utilised by the grid when it is struggling to cope with demand such as during the peak heating season.

Some big names have already invested in solid-state battery technology, which can be charged tens of thousands of times, with potential ranges of three times their lithium ion counterpart.

Clearly, the plumbing and heating industry needs to work alongside the government to assess the range of solutions, thinking innovatively and sharing knowledge across sectors.

The innovation gap

Whenever there is fundamental change, there is inevitably an innovation gap that needs to be plugged - the distance between what we want to achieve, and what we are currently capable of. In this case, that is the electrification and decarbonisation of heat.

Generally, an innovation gap can be addressed by heavy investment in R&D, or through legislative enforcement, or by a mix of the two. The government has already indicated its willingness to invest in research, injecting £26 million into high-profile projects such as HyNet, HyDeploy, and several other hydrogen-focused initiatives.

Alternatively, hard policy changes can force manufacturers to plug the innovation gap. The 2050 target for ‘net-zero’ emissions sets the finish line, and it is possible that the government could work backwards from this point to establish periodic milestones for the maximum allowable CO2 content in the fuels. This is not an easy task and a major question for the heating industry is to establish what the definition of low carbon heating and fuel is.

We have previously defined history in terms of the introduction of new materials - namely the stone age, bronze age and iron age – and now we need to consider that the next one may be on the horizon: ‘the graphene age’.

The potential cost to homeowners

Trickling down from the macro-level, the impact that the decarbonisation of heat will have on homeowners cannot be ignored. The level of investment that is going into hydrogen research will almost certainly have a knock-on effect on the cost to the end-consumer – and that is before possible changes to infrastructure. However, the density of hydrogen is much lower than natural gas, requiring three times the volume to deliver the same amount of energy, and may result in an increase in the size of the consumers’ gas pipework.

Likewise, in order to achieve the mass deployment of heat pumps, certain homes would potentially require a greater level of insulation, and increased use of low temperature heat emitters, all of which will add to the complete installation cost.

Then there is the significant question of how the necessary electricity will be generated. Presumably it would have to originate from a renewable source, such as wind, solar or wave power, but there are questions over the extent to which the UK is equipped for this. Whichever route is taken, public confidence can only be achieved by minimising the impact the measure will have on consumers – the majority have grown accustomed to a combi-boiler that provides instantaneous hot water and so adjusting to a system that requires hot water cylinder may necessitate lifestyle changes.

The installer perspective

It is crucial to acknowledge that all the research in the world will not matter unless it can be put into practice, so engaging with installers is critical to the successful implementation of lower carbon heat. Both existing frontline professionals and those coming into the heating industry will require huge support from both government and the manufacturers of the new technology if they are to deliver the ambitious targets.

Training and education is paramount as a foundation, and as we move towards an era of diminishing returns, installers need to ensure they are widening their skills base. Ultimately, they will be the ones required to sell low carbon solutions, so both the installer and consumer need to be part of the journey at every step. We cannot force technology down their throats without due care and attention, so this requires wide-ranging engagement across all levels of the heating industry.

As with any debate that concerns an innovation gap, answers to previous problems end up posing further questions. The significant political uncertainty that we are now facing cannot be an excuse for industry to halt engagement, because we cannot rely solely upon the hard work of civil servants to facilitate change.

The key is to keep an open mind to all possible solutions and to understand that we can only achieve our goal by cooperating with one another, and contributing positively in order to secure our future.

Paul Harmer is Lead Technical Consultant at the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE),

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