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The future of heating

The future of heating

In last month’s edition of HVR magazine, Paul Rose, chief executive of OFTEC, described what he sees as the challenges associated with the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy and, in particular, the challenges this presents for the UK domestic oil industry. Guy Ransom, Commercial Director of Finn Geotherm, one of the UK’s leading heat pump companies and a multi HVR Award winner, explains why he believes the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which underpin this policy, are correct and should be adhered to.

Alternatives to carbon fuelled heating have been available for more than 70 years. In 1948, the Spectator Magazine wrote of a heat pump installation completed for the Eastern Electricity buildings in Norwich: “It seems incredible that a device such as the heat pump should have escaped the attention that it deserves. Now we know that it will work, and the time has come to make the most of the knowledge we have gained.”

Despite this significant passage of time, we continue to question the viability of a technology which is able to generate 4kW of heat for every 1kW of electricity used, has no emissions other than those associated with the ever-cleaner electricity it uses and which, when correctly designed and installed, can deliver heat to virtually any building in the UK. Heat pump technology is tried and tested – and available now.

It is an obvious fact that any building can be heated by matching the energy loss at a given target temperature with energy input. A heat pump is simply an efficient means of supplying a given amount of energy. As such, the system can be scaled to meet the needs of a one-bedroom bungalow, perhaps 5kW, or a 27-bedroom stately home, perhaps 120kW. The key then is not the source of the heat, but the appropriate means of distributing it.

Heat pumps do work most effectively at a lower operating temperature than combustion boilers – typically 50°C versus 80°C flow. They are also however designed to work with longer duty cycles so, rather than providing a rapid inrush of heat, energy is delivered steadily over a longer period than traditional boilers. We are very familiar with this principle in underfloor heating. Correctly sized radiators are also totally effective in working with heat pumps to maintain desired room temperatures, even in the draughtiest of buildings.

Heat pumps can heat properties of all ages and sizes more than adequately. Finn Geotherm has been installing heat pump systems since 2006 and includes several large, listed stately homes within its project portfolio. It is a fact that, despite the age, low EPC rating and lack of insulation of these large country houses, the occupants have been more inclined to complain of being too warm following their heat pump installation than too cold.

It is true that the installation of a ground source heat pump system will be considerably more expensive than installing a traditional oil boiler, perhaps three times as much. Given the fact that a heat pump will last typically three times as long as a condensing boiler and that, during every year of its life, it will generate significant savings on heating, this additional upfront cost is more than paid for during the system’s lifetime.

Whilst these considerations of cost and efficiency must be fully satisfied, we should not lose sight of the desperate need to reduce the carbon we are relentlessly billowing into the atmosphere every year. We are already well behind the targets required to achieve the 80% reduction in 1990 levels that the UK is legally committed to achieve by 2050. This is despite emissions from power generation being more than halved.

The CCC estimates we will need to install over two million more heat pumps by 2030 – accounting for 345tWh – if we are to stand any chance of meeting the required carbon reduction targets. This will require a dramatic change from the current position where heat pumps account for less than one percent of annual heating installations.

Much of this however can and should be achieved by incorporating large scale ground source heat pump systems within district heating schemes, where one plant room can meet the needs of many households. This is more efficient both from the perspective of capital cost and operational efficiency. In addition, it could be a life-changer for those living there, particularly in homes where residents are unable to afford big heating bills.

To do this, we have to break our love affair with high temperature heating. Specifiers and architects need to incorporate these systems into both public and private building projects alike. Housing associations must embrace the technology to reduce endemic problems of fuel poverty. Meanwhile, the CCC is correct in saying, “climate change will not wait while we consider our options”.

An edited version of this article ran in HVR – August 2018.