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Electrification of Heat

Defra – 2018

The government published its Clean Air Strategy on 22 May 2018.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said that the government is following its July 2017 proposals up by publishing its Clean Air Strategy to look at ‘more than just transport’.

He said: “Air quality has improved significantly since 2010 but sixty years on from the historic Clean Air Act a clear truth remains – air pollution is making people ill, shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment.”

“This is why today we are launching this clean air strategy, backed up with new primary legislation. It sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of government to improve air quality.”

“Today’s plan sets out how we will work with local authorities to tackle the effects of roadside pollution caused by dirty diesels, in particular nitrogen dioxide”.

“This is one element of the government’s £3 billion programme to clean up the air and reduce vehicle emissions”.

The Clean Air Strategy covers five major pollutants:

  • sulphur dioxide,
  • oxides of nitrogen,
  • volatile organic compounds (VOC),
  • particulates and
  • ammonia.

The government optimistically estimates that the Clean Air Strategy will reduce the costs of air pollution to society by an estimated £1 billion every year by 2020, rising to £2.5 billion every year from 2030. However, the Clean Air Strategy seems a little short on the details of how this will occur and while a reduction in £1 billion every year would be good it should be noted that the current estimated costs of air pollution is £20 billion a year.

The Clean Air Strategy does link wood burning to poor urban air quality and it is expected that the forthcoming consultation will propose ending the RHI for new biomass installations in urban areas where on-grid gas is available.

While it is true that burning gas emits lower NO2, SO2, CO2 and particulates than burning biomass, Defra knows that heat pumps can provide heat (or cooling) without using combustion — and without emitting any gases or soot at all.

Urban Air Quality

A variety of air pollutants have harmful effects on human health and the environment. In most areas of Europe, these pollutants are principally the products of:

  • incomplete combustion from burning fuels for space heating
  • power generation
  • motor vehicle traffic.

All but two of London’s boroughs are exceeding EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas linked to respiratory problems. Over 50 locations in London exceed the EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide by two and a half times.

According to the latest figures available from the OECD, premature deaths and ill health caused by air pollution cost the UK economy an estimated $86bn (£56bn) in 2010.

Urban Air pollution can be reduced by using Heat Transfer instead of Combustion

There are alternatives to the three principal causes of air pollution:

  • combustion for space heating can be replaced by all electric heating using ground source energy and Seasonal Thermal Energy Storage
  • power generation from burning fossil fuels can be replaced by power generation from solar, wind and nuclear
  • motor vehicles driven by fossil fuels can be replaced by electric vehicles.

Most forms of space heating are based on combustion of gas, oil, coal or biomass: all forms of combustion emit gases including nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides and soot. The alternative to combustion for heating is to use direct electic heating – which incurs a high running cost – or heat transfer using heat pumps.

Air source heat pumps can yield 2.5 to 3 kW of heat for each kW of electricity used.

Ground source heat pumps can yield 3.5 to 4 kW of heat for each kW of electricity used in a well designed installation, or more when the system is designed to store heat in the ground in summer (either through heat collection from solar thermal panels, or as the by-product of providing cooling).

Next steps for the Government

The pressing needs for the UK are to:

  • to continue to decarbonise electricity generation (which is progressing well)
  • and to decarbonise heating and cooling of buildings.

To decarbonise heating we need to put a stop to combustion of carbon compounds. The elegant alternative is to use heat transfer for heating. That means using heat pumps now.

Energy Recycling is the Ultimate Energy Saving Measure

Using ground source energy and recycling solar heat through the ground (from summer to winter) is the surest route to saving energy and reducing carbon emissions from heating.

Silver Bullet for Decarbonisation of Buildings

It has been said that “there is no silver bullet for the decarbonisation of buildings”. We disagree. The Silver Bullet has a name on it: “ground source energy”. The UK needs to adopt a policy of joined-up heating and cooling based on thermal energy storage in the ground and heat transfer.

There is a very clear route to decarbonising heating

The UK has made good progress on decarbonising the National Grid. However, it has only made very limited progress on decarbonising heating and cooling which still relies largely on combustion of gas, coal, oil and biomass to generate heat.

Combustion of carbon compounds releases CO2, NOx, SOx and particulates.

There is a well proven alternative to combustion based on heat transfer and heat storage in the ground between summer and winter: ground source heat pumps.

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