The role of heat pumps in the renewable agenda

FETA - Terry Seward
This helpful technology — Terry Seward.

FETA’s Terry Seward brings you up to speed on the role of heat pumps as an effective means of exploiting renewable energy.

Renewable energy is defined as the energy generated from natural resources than can be naturally replenished.

As the heat radiation from the Earth is equal to the incoming solar radiation, this equilibrium can be considered as providing the Earth’s climate. Renewable technologies thus look to utilise this incoming solar energy, which can be used directly or indirectly to provide a sustainable energy source rather than using traditional fossil fuels.

One of the key areas of confusion in the whole renewable issue is that the agenda consists of two parts (renewable power generation and renewable heat generation), and there has been much debate over the years which technologies either produce or utilise renewable energy.

Renewable heat is an application of renewable energy and refers to the renewable generation of heat, rather than electrical power, by, for example, replacing a fossil-fuel boiler using a heat pump to supply the heat-distribution system.

Many countries with a predominantly heating requirement, such as the UK, consume more energy for heating than they do electrical power. For example, according to the Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR), about half of all the final energy consumed in the UK is as heat. Most of this heating demand is met by natural gas. Only about 0.6% is currently available from renewable heat sources, and this proportion will need to rise by some 14% to hit our binding EU target of 15% by 2020.

Consequently, half of the UK’s CO2 emissions emanate from heat production. The production of heat is, therefore, the most crucial of the energy issues to address under the UK’s current and future environmental policies. The 2007 Energy White Paper re-stated the Government’s commitment to de-carbonising heat, and the Renewable Heat Incentive, out for consultation in 2009 for implementation by 2011, will cover a wide range of technologies — including air- and ground-source heat pumps.

Further major progress has been made in Europe with the Directive on the Promotion of Energy from Renewable Sources (RES), which has now been agreed by the EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers. This Directive recognises ground-, water- and air-source heat pumps as renewable heat technologies to be added to the range of solutions in the renewables agenda.

Renewable heat goes hand in hand with both energy efficiency and the low-carbon agenda. Renewable heating projects depend heavily for their success on energy efficiency and, in the case of heat pumps, to reduce the size and investment in the heat pump and its operating costs.

The market for renewable heat is, currently, mostly inaccessible to domestic consumers due to inconvenience of supply and high capital costs. However, the heat pump, which is a proven technology, obtains heat from a renewable source, and is a low-carbon technology as well as an energy-efficiency measure. Heat pumps can greatly assist in creating a universally accessible market in the UK utilising the existing mix of electricity generation and future mixes based on lower emissions. On this basis, the opportunity to transform the market with some immediacy is already in place.

Although electricity as a power source is seen as being high carbon and reliant on fossil fuels, its usefulness cannot be denied and underestimated, and it will remain the most flexible energy source available for a whole host of uses.

The increase in low-carbon and renewable electricity generation will have a major impact in the de-carbonisation of the electricity grid, be it from wind or wave generation or nuclear power — the last now becoming a vital component in the carbon-reduction agenda. These sources of generation will also impact on the efficiency of electricity production. The RES mentioned above will require EU member nations to use an electricity-generation efficiency in its calculation methodology for the portion of renewable heat supplied by heat pumps into particular applications. These details are still to be thrashed out; however, it is clear from all informed sources that heat pump tick a number of boxes.

•Low-carbon technology.
•Renewable heat technology.
•An energy-efficiency measure.
•Are part of the environmental solution.
•Are actively supported through official grant schemes and other initiatives. Yet for all the perceived benefits of heat pumps, there remain detractors and critics of the technology — which has a tendency to slow down the introduction of heat-pump technologies into the mass market. However, history tells us that progress ultimately prevails, and this will be the case for heat pumps, which tick all the boxes for helping to create a sustainable future.

Summing up, heat pumps are now fully accepted as part of the solution to a renewable and low carbon future. The challenge for us all is to identify further innovative applications to exploit the full potential of this helpful technology.

Terry Seward is commercial manager with FETA, the Federation of Environmental Trade Associations.

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