A good start on the road to Net Zero

Pete Mills, Commercial Technical Operations Manager for Bosch Commercial & Industrial, looks at why the commercial heating market needs to be considered in the road to net zero 2050

Last year, the Government released the long-awaited Energy White Paper. Within this it expanded on the previously announced 10-point plan from the Prime Minister on what investment and commitments will be made to ensure the UK can reach the ambitious target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Now energy is used in abundance by many sectors, but transport and heating are among the largest contributors to the country’s carbon footprint. At first glance, the white paper looks to cover many elements and does set out a clear strategy, however given the size of the job it is understandable, albeit disappointing, that considerations of certain technologies and how they will be installed in more commercial-sized buildings have not been explored in full. Let’s take a look.

A commercial need

One thing the paper can be praised for is its focus on hydrogen. This is a welcomed technology that if implemented can be a strong alternative for natural gas in heating, as well as for powering heavy duty vehicles in transport.

There is clear investment planned from the Government to help increase research into hydrogen gas and ultimately move to real-life implementation. It also sets out some key milestones, such as the creation of a hydrogen village and a hydrogen town by 2021 and 2030 respectively.

It is important that commercial-sized buildings are considered in both cases. You certainly couldn’t create the equivalent of a town without some thought into how commercial buildings – not typical size residential homes would fit in.

That includes not just heating through boilers but all sorts of different appliances need to be thought of if they’re planning to do a wholesale conversion like that.

There is of course a gap when it comes to hydrogen at a commercial level. There are only a certain number of products available now, not necessarily because of technology available but more on an industrial level. It is difficult to make a business case to produce products powered by hydrogen because volumes are exceptionally low and there is no buy-in from key decision makers right now. Yet, we cannot move forward as a whole unless we have product offerings in place.

In short, the domestic side is currently covered, and there are good possibilities for hydrogen use at the much larger industrial scale. It is this gap between the two that needs addressing by government.

Hopefully this will change. Programmes such as Hy4Heat, of which Bosch Commercial & Industrial are part of, are supporting production of new and varied products, such as cascaded hydrogen appliances.

A network of heat

One definite solution to providing heat and hot water to commercial buildings efficiently is heat networks. They are referred to in the Energy White Pape, which is unsurprising as they are fast-becoming the ‘go to’ option for many local authorities, housing associations and developers. This is thanks to their strong credentials of providing heat and hot water in a high-efficiency, low carbon way.

However, when the white paper was released heat networks were pushed to the side in terms of national media promotion. This may not be a surprise with a document this size however I do think going forward that there should be more focus on heat networks. Particularly the way people evaluate heating larger projects. So large scale, multi-occupancy district heating systems where perhaps contractors are looking at large peak boilers. If you slightly oversize these at the outset, then that project will be better future-proofed and prepared for conversion in the years to come where hydrogen gas may be made available in that area.

A hybrid approach

Although it was great to see heat networks included, one element left out which was glaringly obvious was hybrid systems. In our view, the best future-proof solution for heat networks is a hybrid between heat pumps and peak-load boilers. These could deliver savings on both carbon emissions and capital costs.

Hybrid solutions between heat pumps and peak load boilers offer a practical option to keeping capital costs under control, while still delivering significant carbon savings.

During Spring and Summer, 80% of the kWh’s can typically be provided through heat pumps. Heat networks typically operate below 25% of their peak demand for over half of the year, which is well suited to a heat pump. On the small number of days each year when temperatures are coldest, demand can be taken up by the peak-load boilers.

This makes even more sense where air source heat pumps are used, since it is on these days with low external temperatures that their operating efficiency will be at its lowest. Heat generating plant redundancy is also not optimised by having expensive heat pumps waiting to kick in on the rare occasion that another heat pump goes down. Far better to meet this need through lower cost, quick-firing boilers to reduce capital costs.

Another benefit of including a hybrid system instead of solely heat pump is that it can support further carbon emission reductions. If hydrogen, as the white paper alludes to, becomes available in the future then having a peak load boiler in the plant room will be of great help. Coupling that with a heat network’s unique ability to adapt to multiple forms of heat that become available, will result in a considerable reduction in carbon emission.

To summarise, the Energy White Paper certainly does point us in a more clarified direction towards net zero, however with a few additional tweaks or extra considerations the journey could become that slightly bit easier. Luckily, with various regulations and standards due for 2021, there is still time!