Will humankind get to on top of the global warming crisis? Is this the biggest threat to humankind?
Asks Dave Pearson, Director, Star Renewable Energy
Frankly, people and society are generally too selfish to make the decisions for themselves. Those which are required to reduce the production of CO2 and equivalent global warming gases for future generations.
Stir in a growing demand for cleaner air and things in the land of heating (synonymous with burning stuff) are getting very interesting indeed.
So what are the drivers?
The 3Ps or Social, Economic and Environmental (not quite as catchy).
Perhaps the 3Ps don’t need much explanation; but it basically means a balance between the three, so that there is sustainability in everything we do. The planet will still be here (and habitable to humans and the rest of the eco-system we share it with), the humans will be sustained in a ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs basis’ with access to resources and gainful employment. Whilst in good health and the financial systems needed for a functioning society are in balance with neither a short-term exploitation of the other two factors nor a methodology of supporting the planet and people that is insolvent.
This last point needs some explaining. Basically, for centuries we have had too much focus on energy being cheap and not clean enough.
However, that statement in itself needs exploring as all systems typically have a mix of capital cost, maintenance cost and operational (fuel) cost. The status quo (gas boilers) are pretty cheap to buy and maintain but more expensive to run. Add in the hidden environmental costs of operation and we really should be redefining our solution.
1. What is the ‘view from the hill?’
2. What is the landscape?
3. Is it a tranquil setting - ‘One man and his dog?’
The answer is definitely not! And the chaos is about to begin.
Let’s begin with some facts, or some reality.
The COP21 requires an 80% decarbonisation of heating by 2050, but largely by 2035. Our economies are creaking. Our businesses are experiencing increasing levels of stealth taxation on fossil fuel. Why? Because the government need us to move forward from burning gas.
The ‘fracking question’ is over played and irrelevant, in a saving money context. It basically means a continued availability of local gas. At best, we retain the status quo of cheap gas with no added local environmental problems. Worst case is, we don’t have cheaper gas and have fouled our own nest.
However, local fuel does bring attention to one of the least cited drivers in energy policy ‘macro economics’ (and doesn’t mean cheap TVs or bulk buy of beer at the cash and carry) but basically the economic effect of importing fuel or as it can be viewed ‘exporting cash’. Currency exposure alone should tell us this is a bad idea.
So, as we have shifted from UK gas to imported gas, to other stuff such as imported biomass, we have missed a trick.
Air quality is a big driver too. Put simply, gas in a boiler is clean. Any other combustion is dirtier. We already have air quality issues so this can’t be tolerated as a feature of future solutions.
The national grid has evolved from something like 60 power generation plants to 600,000 of various shapes, fuels, operational periods and robustness. A grid management nightmare.
At the same time we see the phasing down of some of the old guard, such as Longannet. Recently, for a short period, the UK had no electricity produced from coal. This was for the first time since the 19th century.
So what does this mean for heating solutions?
Well one option is to increase the efficiency of electricity generation with combined heat and power. A technique that improves the thermal efficiency from around 35% to around 85%. Fantastic and the solution to all our problems!
Taking local gas engines first;
Maybe not, as the devices are quite expensive and need pretty high run hours to be viable. Circa 5000 per year, which means they are best sized to run lots and hence are often sized for utilisation, rather total heat delivery, resulting in fairly significant levels of top up from conventional boilers.
Not exactly 2035 ready;
The top-up gas being centralised is less efficient than local gas boilers. Due to fact the boilers are not condensing boilers and the networks lose circa 10% of the heat, and of course require electrical pumps to move the water around. In addition, they stack up in part due to the avoidance of the Climate Change levy on electricity purchase...... except the levy was designed to reduce electricity consumption.
Irrational really, when one thinks about it and likely to change, if gas consumption is to drop, as it doesn't look like there will be a supply shortage.
NOx or Nitrous oxide emissions are also higher than gas boilers and so the futuristic view of gas CHP isn’t likely to be serving our 2035 needs.
But, maybe it is a safe transitional bet?
Gas CHP stacks up, in part because making one’s own electricity is lower carbon than the grid. There have been some excellent studies by Paul Woods formerly of AECOM and Stuart Allison of ARUPS. But both conclude that when the grid decarbonises, the carbon efficiency of gas CHP will be too low.
Thinking back to all these new power stations online and those offline, the UK grid has dropped from a notional value of 500g/kWh electricity to circa 300g/kWh. The future lower grid has arrived.
A gas boiler has a heat intensity of around 225g/kWh.
A heat pump, with efficiency 3.5 on a 350g/KWh grid will deliver heat at 100g/kWh less than half a gas boiler. NOW!
So where do we go next?
Well a conference at Warwick University on 10th and 11th October was a good start. Led by industry, for industry.
Aside from that, just ask the obvious questions aligned to this table about carbon footprint, cleanliness and future proof. There are huge questions around grid capacity but if we stop burning gas and use it in new high efficiency CCGT generations plants we get a 100% uplift in output versus a gas boiler.
Above all else remember:
• If it is based on gas, it isn’t #2035READY
• If it imports fuel it undermines our economy
• If it creates emissions it undermines the clean air targets
• If it is cleaner, cheaper and creates lots of jobs it is probably worth a closer look