It’s time for UK businesses to [heat] pump it up

Michael Anderton of LG
Michael Anderton of LG

Michael Anderton, General Manager UK&I of HVAC Building Solutions at Johnson Controls, discusses how commercial buildings are experiencing a revolution in terms of how they operate and step up to their sustainability responsibilities. 

As our buildings account for no less than 40% of emissions, reimagining the built environment around us is a priority like never before. But with many businesses battling just to keep the lights on amid soaring costs, determination to boost energy efficiency, sustainability and healthy buildings run a real risk of moving down the business agenda. 

The government recently announced a six-month emergency energy price1 cap to help UK businesses reduce the price paid for energy, as bills continue to soar. But while this is welcome news, organisations cannot rely on the government support alone nor live in hope that oil & gas prices will fall significantly in the near future.

One tangible solution lies in reducing operating costs and optimising in the places where it matters most. Heating and cooling make up almost 50% of a building’s energy consumption in both residential and commercial buildings. To reduce energy consumption and limit costs, our buildings would naturally seem like a good place to start.

Heat pumps are vital to reaching a decarbonised future. The Carbon Trust2 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. But how do businesses know what’s best for them, and where investments will truly deliver return on investment (ROI)?

Driving the heat pump agenda

The growing momentum towards Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050 is likely to accelerate the replacement of fossil fuelled boilers with heat pumps. Europe, which is leading the move to be carbon neutral by 2050, has already committed to at least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2030 and is proposing to increase this ambition to 55% under the European Green Deal (EGD). More recently, it has also put climate change and the energy transition at the heart of its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, providing economic incentives for the implementation of low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency. Heat pumps are an important part of the equation.

The switch to heat pumps is gaining traction in the UK. However, we are still lagging behind many other European countries when it comes to heat pump installations. The availability of gas, price relatives between fuels, and policy frameworks from governments are affecting a wide uptake in heat pumps in the region. Waitrose recently announced3 it is replacing its gas boilers with electric heat pumps in all its supermarkets to tackle energy costs and bring forward Net-Zero plans.

Part L of the Building Regulations states that non-domestic buildings should be moving to low-carbon heat sources. The government has already 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 goals globally.

Not a one-size-fits all

The electrification of heat through heat pumps, where the electricity to drive the heat pump comes from renewable sources, is a key technology in cutting costs and carbon emissions. Heat pumps can be used as a primary source of generation, replacing fossil fuel boilers in the generation of heat. They can now work at higher temperatures, meaning they are a great option for spaces 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.

Choosing which heat pump model is right for a business, however, is not a straightforward decision. The decision is driven by the overall economic case, operator needs, health, safety and environmental (HSE) requirements and external factors, such as weather. There might be a need for the redesign of mechanical building services to enable lower supply temperatures, as well as investments into training to develop the skills needed to deliver installation commissioning, and maintenance. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to choosing which heat pump is right for a business, as it relies on an organisation’s individual requirements and operating pain points.

To tackle the issues at hand, businesses need to work with a partner that can deliver the most efficient solution based on these factors. The best partners will design and install solutions based on the business and building needs. The best solution is the one that provides the highest value in terms of cost and efficiency or return on investment (ROI), which any good solutions provider can calculate and advise a business on.


Simplifying the complicated

When external temperatures vary so much, ‘wasted’ energy can be reused in a building by integrating both heat pumps and chiller systems. By utilising hybrid systems, when there is a demand for heating or hot water, and cooling at the same time, the heat rejected from the cooling process can be extracted and reused for the heating process resulting in additional energy savings. Hybrid designs are especially useful for buildings that lack the space to install large scale heat pump and chiller systems.

As with any new technological equipment, many complicated configurations are sometimes difficult to optimise. When you have a very complex building with a complex set of data that needs to be connected and analysed at every level, you need to dig deeper. This is where Artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) come in.

Using model predictive control, AI and ML can take every possible scenario of a building’s data set to build an understanding of the actual energy conversion rate for each element of the building. This in turn helps us to understand how to run the system as a whole, rather than in siloes. New data that comes in is automatically added as a scenario and the AI learns from this to create better recommendations for optimisation. It is also able to add in any constraints or anomalies, which means we can accurately use the data from the platform to preview optimum operating point. Thus, enabling us to understand what we need to implement into the system to deliver the energy in the most efficient way.

A new way of operating systems

The UK needs new tactics and approaches to forge a way through and make their operations future fit.  With the drive towards Net Zero in need of urgent acceleration, the way we operate systems is key to reducing energy. Introducing heat pumps is a solution for businesses to improve efficiencies, drive down costs, and remain on track for carbon neutrality. Yet we must remember that introducing these new systems increases complexity, so we need to move towards better models, deployments, and set points to achieve better energy efficiency.

The good news is we don’t need to make the switch alone. Tackling challenges, driving down costs and building improvements into an entire operation is an exercise in collaboration at its heart. By choosing a reputable partner to work with, businesses can implement systems across a whole suite of different buildings with different needs, including university campuses and hospitals. Despite the pain points we have an urgent prerogative to set a new standard through people, technology and processes. Let’s make sure we don’t let the potential slip away.





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