Why we must place renewable heating at the heart of our shift to be sustainable

James Chaplen
James Chaplen

When the UK passed laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050, it became the first major economy in the world to do so. This was a landmark moment on the road to net zero globally. 

In order to reach this lofty, but vital goal, all industries will now have to make tangible and impactful changes. The same is true of the owners and managers of commercial buildings, who are now tasked with meeting a significant number of standards, regulations and legislation in order to ensure they are prioritising carbon reduction.

This net-zero goal provides its own challenges, but is equally a great opportunity to invest in lower carbon building services technologies, and embrace new approaches to the design and operation of commercial buildings.

Heating must be at the heart of this. How we heat buildings and generate hot water is a significant contributor to a building’s carbon emissions. In fact, heating creates nearly a third (32%) of the total carbon emissions in the UK.

The heat pump technology is already available to combat this and heat commercial buildings in a more energy efficient, renewable way. So, what benefits can heat pumps offer, and how can building managers be sure that they are the right solution for a commercial space?

How regulation is driving the shift to sustainable thinking

There are already regulations in place to help reach net-zero - from the Climate Change Act back in 2008, to the more recent Green Growth Strategy in 2017. There is also legislation – specific to commercial buildings –that focuses on how heat is provided to these spaces. This needs to be a key consideration when investing in heating technology.

Part L of the Building Regulations is an example of this. It states that non-domestic buildings should be moving to low-carbon heat sources, the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) means it’s illegal to let any property with EPC rating of less than band ‘E’, and the Non-Domestic RHI has been extended until 2022, in order to help overcome barriers to investing in renewable heating.

There is also growing interest in embodied carbon in commercial buildings, as well as the amount of carbon produced by a building across its whole lifecycle. When looking at carbon impact, building managers must consider the full environmental cost of the extraction, processing, manufacture, delivery and assembly of every single product or material used.

Accounting for all of these factors may seem like a lot, but it’s also evidence that focusing on renewable heating now is the best way to future-proof commercial buildings for years to come.

The role heat pump technology can play

Heat pumps are at the heart of how we decarbonise. The Carbon Trust found  that heat pumps have the potential to deliver CO2 savings of up to 70% compared to conventional electric heating, and up to 65% compared to an A-rated gas boiler.

The government has also set a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2030, and the Committee on Climate Change estimate that 19 million heat pumps will need to be installed by 2050 to achieve the net zero goal.

High temperature ecodan QAHV heat pump

To reach this goal, maintaining the momentum of heat pump uptake is critical.  As well as offering renewable heating, heat pumps can reduce running costs and increase efficiencies. They are also becoming the first choice for building managers planning renovations because they are designed for both retro-fit and new build, are easy to design and install, and are scalable to work with other systems. This means they’re a suitable solution for almost any space, and are even able to work alongside existing heating systems in a hybrid situation if required.

Picking the right heat pump for your heating requirements

A heat pump is the ideal solution for commercial buildings, but it’s important to find the right one for the job. Since heat pumps first came onto the market, the choice and range has expanded, and building owners are now able to select exactly the right equipment for a building’s requirements.

For example, heat pumps can now work at higher temperatures, so are a great option for buildings like hotels, hospitals, and leisure centres where there is a high demand for hot water at peak times, removing the need to use a gas boiler.

Mixed use buildings are also becoming more and more popular in the UK, and they can benefit from heat pumps. Buildings which combine residential homes and commercial businesses will have a wide variety of heating and cooling requirements, and up to this point gas boilers, combined heat and power systems or electric water heating have met that need. Now, high temperature heat pumps – like the 40kW Ecodan QAHV – can deliver hot water up to 90°C, and support helping businesses to increase the efficiency of hot water production while cutting their carbon footprint.

Other heat pumps offer options for a modular approach, so that multiple devices can operate in one system. This means that the multiple unit system can cascade available units on and off, to meet the required load of a building. These installations are also scalable and can work for a small doctor’s surgery through to entire district heating projects.

Modern heat pumps can also be applied in buildings alongside other technologies and boost the renewable element of a project – reducing the requirement for heat energy.

We’ve reached a crossroads on the climate where it is now imperative that all industries prioritise investing in renewable technology and push for net-zero. For those in the building services industry, there is a very real opportunity to lead the way and encourage their clients to take a new and more environmentally friendly approach to heating in commercial buildings.

The heating equipment we install today will be in a building for at least a decade, so installing a heating system based on fossil fuels might risk leaving the building as a ‘stranded asset’ in the future. Embracing renewable heating will help ensure buildings are meeting efficient and environmental standards both now and for years to come.

James Chaplen is Senior Product Manager at Mitsubishi Electric

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