The future of HVAC – a roundup of the H&V News HVAC Summit 2019
HVAC industry professionals gathered at the H&V News Summit on 3rd October at the Bloomsbury Hotel in London to discuss the future of heating and buildings. The diversity of speakers gave an interesting insight into the challenges we are facing and how they could be addressed. Julia Maul, Hamworthy's marketing communications executive, reports.
Mike Childs, head of policy research & science from Friends of the Earth, took centre stage as the first guest speaker. With an abstract of climate change, he opened the dialogue concerning heat pumps and hydrogen, two subjects that dictated most of the day at the summit.
Roll out of heat pumps across all UK homes?
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggested the installation of low-carbon heat pumps as one of the main ways to decarbonise heating. While currently about 22,000 heat pumps are installed on an annual basis, more than 30,000 a year would be required to achieve the target.
In order for heat pumps to be installed and customers advised correctly, upskilling is needed. But it is not just a matter of upskilling but also bridging the gap between retiring installers and young trainees entering the industry. Installers should know enough about system design to find the right solution for every customer. The experts call for industry-wide collaboration to standardise education on this subject.
2) Heating system design
With existing buildings, heating system design needs a rethink. Where combi boilers currently deliver heating and hot water, the installation of a heat pump also requires the addition of a hot water cylinder. Additionally, radiator panel sizes in existing buildings might require consideration, given that heat pumps operate at lower temperatures. This, however, could possibly be bypassed with improved insulation of a building.
3) Building design
If more heat pumps are getting installed, demand for electricity will be higher. There is a call for designing buildings for the long-term which includes reducing the amount of energy required in the first place. The focus should be on the development of sustainable buildings.
Heat pumps are costly to install. For this reason, more government incentives are needed to encourage uptake. The Renewable Heat Incentive is repeatedly criticised for being “middle class” – for their nature of incurring high up-front costs which can be claimed back later – an option not available to those on lower incomes. Even with ground source heat pump expert Dr Matthew Trewhella from Kensa Contracting on the panel who addresses concerns such as costs and says they will come down in the future – it soon becomes apparent that heat pumps, at least in the short term, are a more realistic solution for new builds rather than existing buildings, especially where space is at a premium. However, electricity costs will come down with the ongoing decarbonisation of the grid and smart solutions such as grid balancing can help those with heat pumps to operate in ‘off-peak tariff’ territory to save costs. In terms of heat pumps only being low carbon when operated with renewable energy (usually costly), the point was brought up that wind energy from offshore farms is supposed to become cheaper than those from existing gas plants by 2023.
Is hydrogen the solution?
Further fuelling the discussion is hydrogen. Apart from the first panel, this is also addressed by experts from Arup (programme manager of the Hy4Heat programme), Northern Gas Networks and the director of sustainable energy from the University of Nottingham.
Concerns about hydrogen (production) at a glance:
1) Cost and carbon intensity of manufacturing
Hydrogen is an expensive gas to produce. Steam methane reforming is a common method to create hydrogen, but this also requires a lot of energy. In order to make it low-carbon, the electricity required needs to be from ‘green sources’.
A byproduct of this process is also carbon dioxide and a solution to store it must be found.
2) Energy efficiency
Hydrogen is less energy efficient than natural gas. About three times the volume of hydrogen compared to natural gas is required to achieve the same energy yield.
A mix of hydrogen and natural gas is being tested out to see how compatible current applications are. If we switch to a 100% hydrogen grid, new appliances would be required.
Hydrogen disperses quickly but is also odourless and burns with a barely visible flame which means it would require the addition of odorants and flame colourant. There is a call for increasing public acceptance of the gas and demonstrating its safety. How suitable hydrogen is to use on a bigger scale in multiple applications is currently tested within the Hy4Heat programme. This also concerns the delivery of hydrogen and compatibility of materials used in the current gas network. There is a need for standards similar to those for the current use of natural gas.
Hydrogen is seen as not only a part-solution for heat but other uses as well (such as transport and energy storage).
Are we going all-electric?
For heat pumps, as well as hydrogen production, the need for them to be powered by renewable energy is repeatedly raised. But confronted with the idea of going “full electric” for all energy systems, the experts underline the need for a diversified energy supply. If e. g. both heating and transport would rely on electricity and if there was a power outage, the entire system would break down and hence the resilience affected.
Therefore, the solution lies in diversification.
Instead of solely relying on heat pumps, many see the future in hybrid heat pump systems which could draw part of their fuel requirements from hydrogen.
A new era of Building Regulations
All agree that the industry needs a rethink – legislation needs to be enforced, buildings not seen as commodities in order to raise quality, money should not be the main driver and responsibility is a core value across all parties involved in a project.
In a nutshell
Heat pumps and hydrogen both have their place in the future. While the former will most likely be used in new builds due to space and installation requirements, hydrogen production still needs to be developed further to make it more sustainable. This involves the development of low-carbon hydrogen and also finding a solution to work with existing infrastructure and appliances (and the development of new ones).
From an education point of view, we need to look at a way to educate/upskill installers in a tight timeframe to keep up with the demand. To ensure we have the best-suited solution for every customer, individual buildings and needs have to be assessed and customers advised accordingly. Heat pumps are not suitable for all buildings, also due to space concerns.
In terms of buildings, we need to look at more sustainable design which (almost) eliminates the need for heating and cooling (Passivhaus standard). This will not be possible without a high building standard and a change of mentality in the building industry. Legislation needs to be in place and enforced in order to ensure this.
In my view, heat pumps offer an alternative. However, as raised by many at the summit, it is more suitable for new builds than it is for existing buildings. With leaky buildings all around and insulation rates at an all-time low, we should look at fixing these issues first before investing in new technology for old buildings. While heat pumps are low-carbon if used with renewable energy sources, the space requirements mean they would be a less preferable choice for the city.
Given the costs involved and general lack of engineers in the sector, let alone those specialised in heat pump installations, we will have to see how the rollout works in the domestic sector to consider it for commercial buildings.
Hydrogen as key fuel for the future is still in the development stage. Although promising, it needs investment to guarantee low-carbon production. It is fair enough looking at what the byproduct of a combustion process is (in an ideal case only water) but it’s also about what goes into it. A main concern will be the safety of future appliances to be compatible with this type of gas.
Lastly, we are currently wasting so much energy due to inadequate building design, we need to ‘learn how to fix the cause rather than to apply a plaster’ – taking David Frise's words as inspiration.
By Julia Maul, marketing communications executive for Hamworthy Heating.