It’s pretty much a given that every generation thinks they live in a period of great change. Our generation has the unlucky privilege of genuinely living through a period of total transformation (and potential existential crises) due to the climate emergency.
In order to maintain hope of halting, and potentially eventually reversing, the effects of climate change we are going to need to completely decarbonise our energy markets. This is one of the greatest challenges we face, both in terms of difficulty and importance.
There are two main aspects of this we’re going to discuss in this blog:
-The decarbonisation of heating. We will have to move away from oil and gas-based heating solutions for both commercial and residential buildings, and we’ll need to do it fast. We’ll likely do this via electrification, and that’s going to mean mass installation of heat pumps and further decarbonisation of the electricity grid.
-The decarbonisation of transport. Electric vehicle rollout is going to need to accelerate, and that doesn’t just mean more Teslas on the road. It includes rail, ships, planes, bikes, scooters and buses. We must move away from fossil-fuel burning transport and, again, further decarbonise the electricity grid.
Problem 1: Producing enough green electricity
The move towards electric heating and transport is going to put one hell of a strain on our power grid. We’ve cleaned up our electricity grid quite a lot already in the UK, faster than any other major world economy. Coal-fire generates just 2% of our electricity now.
But natural gas still provides 40%.. So we’ve still got a long way to go to generate enough green electricity to satisfy our current requirements.
And those requirements are going to increase with the widespread electrification of heat and transport. There are encouraging signs, including from this Kensa report which suggests that electrification of residential heating will put less pressure on the electricity supply than previously thought. But it’s clear we’ve got a lot of work to do – this report from UK Power Networks predicts that proliferation of electric vehicles will put a significant additional strain on the power grid. They also found that while heat pumps will contribute to a more uniform, less peaky power demand, heat pumps overall will have double the effect on power demand that electric vehicles will. And of that, the vast majority will come from commercial heat pump installations.
UK Power Networks also found that the quality of heat pump installed drastically changes the overall impact on the grid. Better designed heat pumps had far less of an effect on overall power demand. So when we specify and install heat pumps, we will need to achieve high quality, smart installations.
Problem 2: Supplying enough green electricity
The future power market will mean that our typical demand peaks and troughs will change drastically.
Picture a cold, grey, still November day in a suburban area, inhabited by people who drive to work. At work, those people’s offices will create significant power demand keeping them all warm at their desks. Once they get home, they’re going to want to plug in their electric vehicles to charge overnight, they’re going to want the house to be warm, and they’re going to want to make a cup of tea.
The power grid will have to find a way to generate enough electricity to meet that demand (with low sunlight and no wind). Or it’ll have to find a way to store electricity produced on other days (using batteries). Or it’ll have to find a way to curb that demand (with price increases).
Heat pumps for both commercial and residential use will have digital tools and analytics that can help consumers and businesses regulate their own power use. They will also be able to learn heating patterns, and ensure a smooth ramp up of electricity demand to heat homes and commercial buildings at the right time. Unlike natural gas boilers, heat pumps don’t need to generate extremes of heat quickly to warm a building – they can do it gradually, in a much more efficient way.
But regardless, there will still be peaks of demand on the electricity grid that don’t exist now, and the future power market will need to find ways to cope. It’s likely going to be a mix of supply-side (production of more green electricity, storage of that electricity, and efficient distribution of that electricity) and demand-side (price increases to moderate demand, analytics to change behaviours).
What does this mean for us?
Good question. The electrification of heat and transport has to and will happen. It will become both too ethically and financially too difficult to rely on fossil fuels to heat our buildings and move around. That’s a non-negotiable.
But that electrification is, in all likelihood, going to have far and wide-ranging effects on:
-How much we (as businesses and consumers) have to pay for power
-How consistent our power supply is, and our attitude to using that power
-Where we work, how we travel to work, and how often we travel to work
And probably 20 other things we haven’t anticipated yet.
It’s a challenging, transformational time. But it’s an exciting one – the possibilities of new ways of living are fascinating as are the commercial opportunities.
Some utility companies are already providing flexible tariffs for heat pumps, plus demand side management and frequency response are becoming increasingly valuable services. It is easy to imagine a future where AI makes the best choices to deliver your preference between cost, carbon and comfort. Your utility bill reflects your choice and the market conditions at the time.
This is a subject we discuss more in our article on Smart Cities. For more information on how your business can help, check out our Commercial Heat Pumps. If you’d like to learn more about how the energy transition will affect your business and what you can do about it, get in touch.