Government policy: Renewable heat, carbon and all that …

Our quarterly rant: Government policy, renewable heat, carbon and all that…

Future generations won’t thank us for the current lack of technical understanding within our senior political ranks. It was, to say the least, a little disappointing that no party in the snap-election bothered to mention renewables policy. At the same time, the climate-change denying dinosaur Trump promotes the use of coal and oil in the face of accelerating increase of global temperature and atmospheric CO2.

Despite all of this, we can report that GSHP, renewables and water resource works are all busy. We believe there have been so many false starts, U-turns and instances of good old-fashioned government mess-ups over the last seven years with regard to the RHI and renewables policy that people and investors have decided that we may as well just get on with it! In a similar fashion, it is clear that the world will get on with implementing the Paris climate accord despite the USA’s brainless stance.

As regards the RHI; we have a degree of continuity. Despite some tabled amendments to RHI policy (delayed by the election and summer recess), Carbon Zero Consulting are confident the RHI will remain open to applications until March 31st 2021. Work is now in progress at the department of BEIS to develop strategies for the ‘post-RHI’ environment. This is likely to take the form of planning requirements for renewable energy provision – rather than payment of tariffs.

UK renewable energy has managed to get column inches this summer with the significant contribution of solar and wind power to the UK power mix – at times providing up to 50% of our energy on a sunny/windy day. Just a few years ago, the ‘carbon intensity’ of grid electricity was in excess of 500g of CO2 (this is the measure of how ‘dirty’ or how much CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere for every unit of power we all consume). This figure now averages less than 300g with some instances, of less than 100g.

This is real progress – based on investments made some years ago. We need to keep our focus on the importance of renewables in the face of huge cost increases of nuclear power. The latter is of huge importance to our future zero-carbon power mix, but we are ‘over a barrel’ due to shameful policy to allow the Chinese and French to name their nuclear power price and take control of our future energy security.

Despite the many problems and shortcomings of our government’s approach, the significant reduction of CO2 emissions means the use of heat pumps for heating and cooling has never been more attractive as they become an increasingly low-carbon technology.

No better time to consider renewable heat!

Our quarterly rant: Despite everything, there has never been a better time to install a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) of the provision of renewable heat.

The UK does not have targets for the increased provision of renewable heat; rather a requirement to lower carbon emissions across the board. The UK’s fifth carbon budget, due for parliamentary approval this year, recommends a 57% reduction in UK emissions from 2028-2032 on 1990 levels.

The committee for climate change (CCC) recently commented that ‘Heating and hot water for UK buildings make up around 40% of our energy consumption and 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions. It will be necessary to largely eliminate these emissions by around 2050 to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act and to maintain the UK contribution to the Paris Agreement. Progress to date has stalled. The Government needs a credible new strategy and a much stronger policy framework for buildings decarbonisation’.

Progress has indeed stalled since the Brexit referendum, cabinet reshuffle, scrapping of DECC and absorption of all things carbon/renewable into the catchily named new department of ‘Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’ (DBEIS). It is likely that we will be told a little more about the fate of the RHI and renewable heat in early December. We await with great interest what BEIS have taken 6 months to mull-over!.

The UK’s long term aim for the provision of heating for domestic and commercial premises is to utilise low carbon (and ultimately zero carbon) electricity to provide renewable heat via heat pumps. Great strides have already been taken to reduce the ‘carbon intensity’ of mains electricity. Coal, the worst possible option for emissions of CO2, has rapidly become a minor contributor to our mix of power sources with gas, nuclear and renewables providing the bulk.

Just 3 years ago, the carbon intensity of grid electricity was often in excess of 500g of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour (500gCO2/kWh). Now, with increased contribution from renewables and gas, the average has fallen to 300gCO2 or less.  This will continue to fall as more renewables are brought on line, and eventually more nuclear – although I fear Hinckley and other nuclear projects have further hurdles to jump before they power-up your heat pump!

The major ‘fuel’ source for a GSHP is, of course, the ground. A well-designed and maintained borehole or trenched ground array will provide renewable heat for 100 years or more – provided nobody digs it up! As such a ground array acts as a very long term capital asset for the system owner. With the significant reduction of carbon emissions from electricity production, there has never been a better time to install heat pumps.

There is ongoing technical demand and client desire to utilise GSHP systems, but in a government incentivised market, there is an urgent and absolute requirement for clarity and certainty from DBEIS. To read more from Carbon Zero Consulting Ltd, visit our news section. 

Hottest April on record globally

Global temperature records show that April was the hottest on record – this follows March breaking the same record. Furthermore, it is the seventh month in a row to break global temperature records, this all but guarantees that 2016 will be the hottest year on record.

April’s temperature smashed the previous record by 0.24°C and was 0.87°C above the average baseline. Scientists are now becoming worried that it may be impossible to meet the 1.5°C temperature cap agreed at the Paris summit with doubt even being raised on a 2°C cap. This worrying trend of smashing temperature records shows the need for immediate action to reduce our carbon emissions.

UK national grid uses no coal for first time in over 100 years

The UK’s national grid has been producing electricity without any assistance from coal fired power plants for the first time since 1882. This historic event occurred late Monday 10th May and spanned into the early hours of Tuesday morning. This was again repeated over the weekend.

The government has stated its plans to phase out coal power by 2025 as it is has a significantly higher ‘carbon intensity’ compared to gas (and of course energy from renewables and nuclear has zero carbon intensity). The reduced reliance on coal is excellent news for heat pump owners as reduced grid carbon intensity will see the carbon efficiency of heat pumps improve even further.

UK Grid Carbon Intensity on 14/05/2016

Our Quarterly Rant: The fate of UK energy supply

Coal power generation accounts for about 20% of our total requirement. The UK has committed to remove coal from our mix of power sources by the mid-2020s. So what will fill the gap?
In the right conditions; power from wind, solar and hydroelectric generate nearly 20% of the UK’s requirement with corresponding reduction of ‘carbon intensity’ of our electricity supply. By their nature, these sources rely on the weather – and so are intermittent and require a backup of some kind. Although there is plenty of new wind power to come, we sit shamefully toward the bottom of the league table for renewable energy deployment. With the painfully slow progress of new nuclear and gas power construction, a major ‘energy gap’ looms when coal and ageing nuclear generators go off-line within 10 years.

Our DECC Minister had hardly stepped off the plane from the Paris climate conference before she announced an end to onshore wind development, huge cuts to solar, scrapping of carbon capture research and cessation of sustainability measures. In the same breath she announced enhanced support for oil and gas producers – and even subsidies for diesel power generation! DECC are saying one thing in public and moving 180° from this direction in reality.
It seems that coal power will be replaced by gas derived from dwindling domestic resources, imports – and shale gas. This will allow DECC to claim a reduction of CO2 output, albeit through replacing one fossil fuel with another. The amount of economically producible shale gas in the UK is entirely unproven and highly unlikely to make more than a fleeting difference to our strategic gas resources.

Nuclear power, a British invention, must be a major part of our future (zero carbon) power supply. We are financially guaranteeing the Chinese and French to design, build and operate new reactors. Do we really know enough about the Chinese economy, or our relationship with the Chinese state in 10 years, let alone 50 years, for this to be a safe, rational solution? Why we cannot trust British engineers to provide nuclear power, given the same degree of financial backing, is quite beyond me.
The potential for domestically engineered tidal power is untapped – and enormous. We live on a windy island in a large ocean, so tidal energy is always available and is zero carbon, secure, predictable, can provide thousands of UK jobs and has no waste product. Why are we not building them by the dozen?

A criticism of renewable heat and power technologies is their need for subsidy to incentivise uptake. It is not widely known, and certainly not broadcast by government, that nuclear and fossil fuel technologies are subsidised to a higher degree than renewables ever could be. In fact, just this week the government have granted £250M to the oil industry in Scotland to prop it up while oil prices are low. (the oil industry won’t pay this back when prices rebound – so why is the tax payer baling out oil companies?!).
The November budget announced (quietly) that the renewable heat incentive (RHI) would continue to be funded up to 2021 – although with a cut of up to 40%. This at least gives renewable heat providers a degree of stability – and we are already seeing an increase in demand for ground source heat pumps.

The ‘anti-renewable’ stance and continued delay of nuclear construction puts at risk our ability to generate our own power. We should not be in this position. We have all the engineers and natural resources we need to provide our own sustainable heat and power.

Feasibility assessment of a large water-source heat pump for Nottinghamshire County Council

Carbon Zero Consulting completed the Stage 1 feasibility and options assessment for a potential renewable heating system to replace gas boilers at Nottingham County Hall on the river Trent.

An assessment of river flow and temperature confirms the Trent is certainly capable of providing sufficient water for an open-loop water source heat pump (WSHP) to replace the majority of heat currently provided by gas boilers.

Our detailed report on the viability of this system covered initial aspects of the existing heating and heat distribution system, water intake and discharge works in the river and regulatory issues.

Our findings were presented and well received by Councillors and the engineering team. We have now been asked to make proposals for the 2 Stage feasibility assessment.

The Fate of the Renewable Heat Incentive

The UK’s stated efforts to reduce CO2 emissions rely on replacing coal (and later, gas) with power from nuclear, wind, solar and tidal generators. These sources of power are to be linked with massive uptake of electrically-powered low carbon heating technologies (heat pumps). The renewable heat incentive (RHI) was intended as a driver toward this aim to promote the uptake of low carbon heating.

Amber Rudd, our new DECC Secretary of State has hit the ground running and is wielding a very sharp axe! With the key UN climate event in Paris looming in December you might think our government would be paying urgent attention to our commitments towards reducing CO2 emissions. The Minister’s speech acknowledges no such urgency – instead she chooses to focus on how the UK’s response to climate change somehow fits within the Chancellor’s drive for short-term and short-sighted savings. The Green Deal, feed-in-tariffs, zero-carbon homes and other recently installed measures are to be cancelled or ‘reviewed’. Although no changes have been announced, we can be confident the renewable heat incentive (RHI) will also be under review.
To date, uptake of renewable heating has progressed in a surprising direction with technology selection based on RHI income, and not sound engineering principles. Figures show that over 90% of all non-domestic RHI applications have been for biomass systems. This is clearly unsustainable. This skewed market is being addressed by recent reductions of the biomass RHI tariff allowing (ground source) heat pumps to compete.

Bearing in mind that the entire RHI budget accounts for less than 1% of DECC’s annual spending (96% goes toward nuclear decommissioning); any future reduction of the RHI would be a wholly ineffective response to Treasury pressure for cuts. However, the RHI in its current form has not achieved some of its intended aims and so it is right to consider some changes and improvements.

The RHI should be retained and improved to support an emerging, high technology engineering sector. We see a blend of ‘carrot and stick’ as being the way ahead to promote renewable technologies, meet emissions targets – and reduce cost to the Treasury.
The below should also be given due consideration:

• Addition to the RHI of an up-front payment to help with the higher capital costs associated with renewable heating systems.
• A renewable heat tariff paid over a shorter time frame. This reduces the government’s long term obligations – which is seen as a factor for opposition to FIT and RHI payments.
• Tightening of (Part L) Building Regulations and introduction of ‘Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards’ for non-domestic buildings. At no cost to the Treasury, these changes would force energy efficiency improvement of the UK’s housing and commercial building stock and promote uptake of renewable technologies.

UK Power Generation Grid Carbon Intensity

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The UK is committed to phasing out power generation by coal (and much later gas) and to increase the contribution from nuclear power and renewable technologies (wind, solar, hydroelectric and tidal). The goal is for power generation to become ‘zero carbon’ by 2050 when all power will be generated by renewable and nuclear means.

Since 2nd June 2015 we have recorded (once per day) renewable power production and the ‘carbon intensity’ of the UK National Grid. The graph shows the percentage of total power generation being met by renewable energy (wind plus hydroelectric) and the resulting carbon intensity of energy produced.

It can quickly be seen how renewable energy generation impacts directly and significantly on the Nation’s Grid carbon intensity.

UK Grid Carbon Intensity

We do not include contribution from nuclear power in the ‘Percentage Renewables’, but nuclear power is also a zero-carbon power generator. Currently, nuclear power provides about 20% of total power produced.

Continued reduction of grid carbon intensity will reduce the UK’s impact on the global rise of CO2 and average temperature. The benefit of lower grid carbon is further enhanced when used to heat our homes and businesses via electrically powered heat pump technologies, such as Ground Source Heating.

Currently, the Carbon Trust states that in all calculations of CO2 emissions from heat pumps, a grid intensity of over 500gCO2/kWh is to be used. However, our findings clearly show the average value is closer to 375gCO2/kWh.

We will continue to plot this data to show the beneficial impact of renewable power implementation.

Politics and ‘renewable hot air’?

Despite an election campaign that failed to mention UK renewable energy policy, the recent G7 meeting made a commitment to pursue ‘deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions’. Good news? Yes, probably, although cynics might suggest this does no more than delay commitments made previously to reduce emissions by 50% before 2050! Rhetoric will no doubt increase toward the ‘UN climate show’ in December; a major objective of which is to limit global temperature increase to 2°C.

John Findlay of Carbon Zero Consulting, explains ‘the UK’s efforts in reducing CO2 emissions rely on replacing coal (and later, gas) with increased power output from nuclear, wind, solar, tidal – and through massive uptake of renewable heating. The latter continues in a rather surprising direction. Recent figures show that 93% of all non-domestic renewable heat incentive (RHI) applications have been for biomass systems. On the domestic front the story is more mixed but shows that the predicted renewable market as a whole is well below where it needs to be.
Major changes are needed to the RHI to breathe life into the renewable heating market, to correct the imbalance of technology uptake and to allow movement toward the stated aims of the UK Climate Change Act.

Proposals to address these factors have been developed by the ground source heat pump association (GSHPA). These can be found at GSHPA_Manifesto Briefing. Findlay adds that “although recent reductions to biomass RHI will help the situation, we must ensure renewable technologies are selected on sound engineering principles – and not simply on short term RHI gain”.

Is the future of Renewable Energy Investment in danger?

The recent major fall in the price of oil, and to a lesser extent gas, has made headlines suggesting that this might spell the end of the need for renewables. However, it was only one year ago that ‘experts’ predicted oil at $200 per barrel. Nobody forecast today’s sub- $50 barrel. It would seem that Saudi has sufficient funds and a stable political landscape that will aim to continue to produce oil at the $50 level in order to put pressure on other producers.

John Findlay, Managing Director of Carbon Zero Consulting, believes this will also greatly impact on the enthusiasm for investment in domestic shale gas.  Mr Findlay says, “This all amply demonstrates the volatility of the fossil fuel market. Although many businesses will welcome a temporary reduction in fuel costs, Carbon Zero Consulting would not recommend building a long term strategy around an endless supply of cheap fossil fuel!

John Findlay continues, “Although heat pumps need electricity to operate, the price of electricity does not suffer from the same degree of volatility as the fossil fuel market. The power generators can use a range of sources, including renewables to hedge their costs. Heat pump technologies maximise the delivery of heat (and cool) for a given amount of input electrical power.”

Although flying in the face of government policy to pursue a massive increase in the electrification of the nation’s heating; installation of biomass technologies has far outstripped heat pump numbers.  The number of projects considering Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) technology is now starting to rise due in part to degression of biomass tariffs, the advent of the domestic RHI and upward correction of the non-domestic RHI (although there remain some anomalies in the provision of RHI for heat pumps compared to biomass).

John Findlay of Carbon Zero Consulting is of the opinion that, “A well-designed low temperature GSHP scheme provides the most efficient means to obtain renewable heating – and cooling. Add to this the benefits of no requirement for fuel delivery or storage, no flue or on-site emissions and the ability to combine with solar technologies; the benefits and returns from GSHP installations look very inviting.”

As we have seen, the price of oil can change radically in a matter of weeks. A Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) is designed to operate for 20 years or more. The major ‘fuel’ source for a GSHP is, of course, the ground. A well-constructed borehole or trenched ground array would still operate in 100 years.

John goes on to question, “What other technology could claim this? In fact, the UK’s first ‘modern’ closed loop borehole GSHP installation has recently turned 20 years of age with heat pump and borehole still going strong. Some systems in Sweden are much older than this. Power stations producing low-carbon electricity to drive heat pumps in every home and business is how we should see the future in the UK – not hopeful gambling on the price of oil!”