Warming to sustainable heat

Amid stark warnings of the urgent need for action to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, Remeha looks at how the heating industry can help organisations achieve a lower carbon footprint and improve productivity with more sustainable heating

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there have been five times as many weather-related disasters in the first decade of this century than in the 1970s from heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes and flooding. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that manmade global warming is already here and that urgent action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to prevent further warming and the devastation that this would bring to the planet.

To help promote more sustainable living, the Government and EU have set steep environmental targets and regulations that encourage a two-pronged approach of improved energy efficiency and increased production of energy from renewable sources. For organisations, the pressure is on not only to lower their carbon footprint but to improve their profitability. Buildings are big users of energy and account for nearly half of the UK’s carbon emissions. With heating and hot water production responsible for as much as 60% of the total energy use of an organisation and around 40% of its carbon emissions, according to the Carbon Trust, it is a good starting point for building operators keen to adopt efficiency measures. The heating industry is rising to the challenge with a combination of high-performance, renewable solutions and affordable energy-efficient systems that will lower carbon emissions, reduce both energy consumption and fuel bills, and improve our national energy security.

However, the desire to be more sustainable in all areas has led to a number of potentially misleading credence claims by manufacturers that customers are unable to verify for themselves. Take rapeseed oil, for example, a product that until recently manufacturers promoted as sustainable. The growing demand for vegetable oils has meant that huge areas of tropical rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia have been cleared for rapeseed plantations with devastating results. It is only in recent years that Round Tables have been set up to certify responsibly and ethically cultivated oils.

Then there’s cycling, an environmentally-friendly activity that is being taken up by more people every day. But it is still hard to find sustainable and ethically cycling gear. Cycling helmets, for instance, are made from expanded polystyrene which loses its protective benefits once you have been in an accident. So not only do you need to buy a new helmet, but the old one is very slow to biodegrade as the plastic is made from petrochemicals.

As for the heating industry, despite the advances in technology the reality is that organisations investing in renewable and energy-efficient products are not always reaping the anticipated carbon or energy-saving benefits from sustainable heating solutions. According to a survey by consultancy Grant Thornton, cost management is the key driver for firms adopting environmentally and socially sustainable business practices, above customer demand and ethical reasons. For the average organisation where carbon commitments are combined with the need for profitability, any investment in environmentally sustainable heating has to deliver the anticipated carbon and energy savings for it also to be financially sustainable.

So how can the heating industry help support organisations in achieving greater sustainability in heating?

Improved communication

Manufacturers and suppliers do not deliberately set out to make false credence claims, but the current practice of reporting on a product’s efficiency could be misleading. Many renewable technologies still rely on either condensing boilers or electricity to provide reliable heat output, yet this is not reflected in the calculations currently provided. Take heat pumps, for example. All heat pumps rely on fossil-fuel sourced energy for reliable delivery of energy. Air- and ground-source heat pumps are powered by electricity which may lose as much as 80% energy when generated by a fossil-fuelled power station before it brings it to the source. Gas absorption heat pumps (GAHP), in contrast, are powered by natural gas. So although the coefficient of performance (COP) data for both would be the same, at around 3.5, the GAHP is far more energy-efficient and delivers significantly greater carbon savings.

To help organisations make more informed choices, the answer in this instance might be to introduce a secondary calculation such as the Primary Energy Ratio (PER) which calculates the relationship between the primary energy input and the useful output energy it delivers to the end user. For ethical reasons, it might also be beneficial to include data on the embedded carbon in the equipment. Providing a full range of efficiencies that a product can be expected to achieve – rather than the maximum efficiencies achieved in test conditions – would also promote more accurate specification and greater saving benefits.

Improved knowledge

The second area to address is the energy performance gap, where the energy use of the new ‘sustainable’ system far exceeds the predicted consumption. All too often this is due not to a failure in the technology but to poor system design and installation.

Renewable technologies are commonly specified on new build developments as the main source of heating. However, this is sophisticated equipment that requires in-depth knowledge if the optimum efficiencies are to be achieved for lower bills and reduced emissions. This is especially true with bivalent systems as, when poorly designed, specified or fitted, the technologies can work against rather than in harmony with each other. Better understanding and communication of how renewable technology works between manufacturers and suppliers, designers and installers, will maximise heating efficiencies, and give us a real chance of achieving our carbon reduction target.

Smarter system design

Improved knowledge will promote smarter design which will in turn help increase the efficiency of our existing buildings – the real challenge for the UK if we are to achieve our carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050. Again, we as an industry should be encouraging our customers to think beyond the first step, which is usually to replace the boiler with a more efficient model, to additional means of maximising the building’s saving potential.  Including an allocation in the budget for complementary bolt-ons such as LZCT GAHPs or biomass, or passive flue gas heat recovery technology is to seize the opportunity to raise efficiencies still higher and reduce emissions still further.

Whether motivated by environmental or financial reasons, there is no avoiding the need to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. From turning down the thermostat one degree to resisting the urge to buy the over-sized fridge or super-suction vacuum cleaner, we can all do our bit. As heating manufacturers, our role is to support the move to more sustainable heating not just with our energy-efficient and low-carbon products, but by communicating with informed, reliable information and detailed BIM files that will assist specifiers, consultants and installers in achieving the most sustainable heating system each time.

This article originally appeared in HVR magazine.

For more information, email boilers@remeha.co.uk

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