The Economist recently commented that to achieve the COP21 commitments R&D in renewables should “… lead to innovative solutions that can be deployed on a commercial scale”. (19/12/15 edition)
Great strides have been made in commercialising low-carbon electricity with the successes of PV and wind. However, ‘green’ space heating technologies remain under developed. Commercially viable low-carbon space heating technologies exist today, some of which can be deployed at scale without any further R&D investment. One example is Minus7.
This technology provides buildings with space heating and hot water, at zero net carbon and minimal running costs. The system works by collecting thermal energy that is then stored, ready to provide heating and hot water to the building.Working with housing associations, developers and innovators, theMinus7 is already being deployed in the UK and is proven to deliver a Levelised Cost of Energy that is less than gas.
This is an example of the types of alternative energy sources that exist today, which can be deployed at scale with the right economic conditions. Government subsidies are expected to support low-carbon technologies. The characteristics of renewable electricity are ideally suited to this economic stimulus in that systems can be installed relatively easily, and deliver energy independent of demand. But building efficiency measures change the building fabric and increase the initial capital cost, therefore making them more complex to support.
Systems such as insulation, ventilation, construction techniques, and embedded energy collection generally cost more than traditional building methods. The construction industry is margin driven and has little interest in the on-going running cost of a building, particularly in the residential sector. There is a perception in the housing sector that adding technology to a home does not increase its sale value, despite demonstrable reductions in running costs. For example, a subsidy that accrues income to the occupier does not encourage a construction company to install technology if it costs more to install, or requires a change in building methods.
Deployment of these types of systems will require two government interventions to break into the market at scale
- Tighten the regulatory regime for compulsory zero carbon buildings
- Mandate low carbon building into all government supported building programme
These two steps alone would substantially change the market for low carbon heating, and at very low cost – however, it may be necessary to continue the subsidy regime, but with a well signalled taper reduction over 5 years.
One benchmark for large-scale deployment of commercial low carbon energy is the UK government’s investment in Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant. This is stated to have a capacity of 3.2GWe and a cost of £35bn. The key selling point of this technology is the ability to deliver constant base load electricity.
As a comparison, the Minus7 system deployed in a million homes would cost a maximum of £16bn. This would remove 3.7GWe from the national grid at peak, while adding 3GWe of PV energy. It would also provide over 3GWth of thermal and electrical storage allowing demand to be moved to match times of low cost electricity production. Energy stores at this scale solves the problem of intermittent renewable energy generation, while also negating the need for back-up fossil fuel power – thus reducing the overall cost of electricity to the country.
In conjunction with such measures, a fundamental review of energy strategy is required. Low carbon energy heating systems deployed nation-wide will substantially alter the energy demand of the country throughout the day. In this light, should the investment proposed in Hinkley Point C be questioned?
Hamish Wilson, CEO Minus7