Back to: In the home agenda
Kaela: So, I'd now like to introduce the first of our advocate speakers. We've got Richard Lowes from UK Energy Research Centre and he's gonna be talking about ways we could heat our homes with electricity. So I hand over to Richard.
Richard Lowes: Afternoon everyone, it's a pleasure to be here. My name is Richard Lowes. I am a researcher with the UK Energy Research Centre and I'm based in the University of Exeter. I'm an independent researcher and for the past 10 years, so about the same time as Jenny, I've been focusing on this issue of how we get to clean heating in the UK really. And basically, it looks pretty clear that a big part of that has to be moving away from fossil fuels towards electricity. So I'm going to spend a few minutes focusing on that issue with some photos from my own life to show you how I've got to this position basically. So first of all, why electricity? Well, the big thing to say is that the UK currently uses gas for most of its heating and some oil as well, and we know to get to net zero, basically, you can't be burning any oil or gas for heating. So really for over a decade, the phrase electrifying, electrifying heat has been seen as this really important approach to get towards clean heating. And the idea is quite simple. We know how to produce very low carbon electricity, so we can produce electricity from renewables, from nuclear, and then you can use that electricity to produce heat and there are various ways that you can use that electricity. I'll go through some of them. But really important takeaway is that to get to net zero heating it is going to be very, very hard. There is no easy option. Everything will involve some sort of work in people's homes and everything will also involve changes to infrastructure. So we're talking about changes in people's homes as well as changes to the sort of wider energy networks and energy system. There are some reasons to be positive. So when a lot of the analysis was done, renewables were still quite expensive and what we have seen over the past few years is renewable electricity becoming a lot cheaper, and that now means that it looks less expensive to get to clean heating, to decarbonised heating, then we once thought it would be so that is a big positive. But it will still cost more than it currently costs to heat our homes. And there's a big question around how that's paid for. But the good news story, as was described earlier, is that you know renewables are getting cheaper and electricity is becoming increasingly green. And this picture is actually just off Brighton and that's my sister in law, Joe, admiring an offshore wind turbine that was commissioned a couple of years ago, and that was when she wasn't being sick off the side of the boat. But that's a fantastic trip to really go and experience it and see these amazing things in real life and they're absolutely huge. Very impressive. So the question on how we actually use electricity to produce heating. Heat pumps are a really important technology for this. Some people have heard of heat pumps. Brief explanation; the electricity that goes into the heat pump, is used to basically compress heat from big areas, so it takes heat from the air or heat from the ground, and it basically squeezes that heat together into a smaller space, and it puts that heat into your house, and that's effectively what they do. So in theory, for the one unit of electricity put in, you could get maybe 2,3,4, in some cases even five units of heat out. Okay. Sorry. Red card, yes.
Member of the audience: Don't understand how it's freezing outside (inaudible).
Richard Lowes: Okay. Yeah. Do you want to come back to that question or shall I answer that now? Okay. So basically, there is heat energy in everything, down to minus 273 degrees. That's a temperature called absolute zero, above that temperature there's energy moving in the molecules. So there is energy, even in temperatures well below freezing. Basically, it's more difficult to get that energy out, but it is still possible on, and for example, air source heat pumps, which take heat from the air and do work down to minus 20 degrees.
Member of the audience: So what you're saying is (inaudible).
Richard Lowes: That's sort of how it works, yes. So the system, and this is my back garden and that's my air source heat pump. And basically there's a compressor like a fridge has, and a big fan, and it sucks in the air onto a large surface area to extract the heat from that, and then from that large surface area squeezes it together with the compressor, so I won't go into too much detail. But it's a refrigerant so a material that goes from liquid to gas. If you stand in front of the air source heat pump because it's extracted all of the heat from the air, it feels quite cold, basically. Okay. So the benefit of heat pumps is that they can be powered by green electricity. So once you've got your green electricity, you can put it into a heat pump and then you get more energy out than you put in. Basically, it's not a new technology. They are used globally at scale, it's very similar components to fridges and it's basically an air conditioner in backwards. So it's not like a whizzy new thing. They've been around for a long time. The big difference to a gas boiler or an oil boiler which most of us have, is that they produce colder temperature heat basically. So a gas boiler you might have at 70 degrees, so a radiator feels very hot to touch and will scold you. A heat pump will work most efficiently at around 45 or 50 degrees or even a bit lower. So the radiator still feel hot but they don't feel red hot like a gas boiler system might do. That means that to make them work properly you have to have more efficient buildings. So all the stuff that Nick was talking about, about energy efficiency, basically has to happen before a house is ready for a heat pump. And the other thing to mention is you will most likely need, or you will need, a hot water cylinder for a heat pump system. They don't produce hot water on demand like a gas boiler does so you're likely to have to have space for a hot water tank in your house. So that's heat pumps. And thank you for the very challenging question on that which I wasn't expecting.#
There are a number of other technologies which can use electricity for heat. So heat networks which Jenny mentioned, where heat is moved between buildings as hot water, you can use big heat networks on systems and those are in existence in other countries around the world. There's also storage heating which has got a very bad reputation and rightly so. Storage heaters often ended up with people having, and you can charge these heaters up overnight, the theory was that they'd stay warm in the day. Often that meant that the house got hot in the night and was cold in the day. There are much more advanced storage heaters now, so they may potentially play a role. But you don't get that same efficiency as you do with heat pumps. There are also simple electric radiators. If you have a very, very efficient flat or a relatively small building, a simple radiator might be cost effective. And one of the areas which is really interesting is around smart metering and these so called time of use tariffs. So you may have heard of economied (inaudible) before where you had a cheaper electricity rate overnight and a more expensive rate in the day. You can now get tariffs which are very much more frequently throughout the day, allowing you to potentially buy electricity when it's cheap and heating up your house or preheating your house so it stays hot when the electricity is more expensive, and that's what I've done for my house. So for my house I turn it off between four and seven in the afternoon and then it stays warm in that period, and I'm now getting heat through my heat pump at roughly the same cost of gas heating. And so I just want to say we can act on this now. These aren't new technologies, but it's a lot of hard work on and this is just the market for heat pumps in some of the biggest European countries. And this is the number of heat pumps sold per 1000 households. So this is sort of a comparable metric, and you can see that actually, the Scandinavian countries and some of northern Europe, is way ahead of the UK. So we're actually very much behind in this space, and even in colder countries, heat pumps are being taken up. So hopefully that (inaudible) some of your concerns around cold temperatures. Hard work's needed for homes to fit the energy efficiency, but also to fit these systems. And they can be quite disruptive but to go alongside this if we're moving a lot of our heat from gas to electricity, we'll also need a bigger electricity networks, so potentially bigger wires in lots of places, and we'll need a lot more electricity generation. And that's not necessarily a bad thing but we are talking about significant increases in the size of the electricity system and that's got to happen at the same time. And of course, the big question is how do we pay for this? Because it will cost more and there are big questions around investment in people's homes, and investments in people's networks. And I think that's a really big question to think about. But personally, I see many positives to this. You get healthier, warmer homes if you do the energy efficiency, and it just feels nice to be in an energy efficient house. You can make the most of UK renewables, so currently we're importing a lot of our gas demand. Around 60% of our gas is imported. If we move to more electricity, we can produce that renewal electricity ourselves, so huge benefits there. And there's something around a high tech focus for heating that I think the UK can really lead the world in, where we're talking about things like matching renewable supply with smart tariffs and with heat pumps, with multiple benefits across the economy.#
I just wanted to say something quickly finally, there is a big battle going on at the moment in in the debate around the future of heating in the UK because there is some big interests, you basically have a lot to lose. We have a very big gas industry, gas networks, appliance manufacturers and so on, and there has been a lot of resistance to this idea of electrifying heat because obviously there's quite a lot to lose. We've seen similar resistance in other sectors. So around bigger fossil fuels and big industries fighting things. And new ideas and new entrance such as heat pumps and their representative struggle to compete with some of the lobbying and influencing from the gas industry, and so converting the gas grid has emerged, converting the gas grid on hydrogen has quite recently emerged. It was this easy, quick fix solution to decarbonised heating that doesn't disrupt consumers. And my personal view is there could be a really big benefits to hydrogen as a solution because you don't need to do to do as much work in people's homes. But at the moment we simply don't know whether it's possible. It's never been done before, and we really don't know how much it will cost. But on the other hand, we do know the electrifying heat is possible and we have quite a good idea of how much that will cost and various people around the world have already done it, and I've even done it in my own home. And so I would say, do trials of hydrogen and do them rapidly. But at the moment we need to focus on what we know already works because we just quite simply don't have time to waste and that is focused on electrifying heat in the most efficient way.
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