The executive summary of the new UK Renewable Energy Strategy begins with the premise that the government of the United Kingdom must simultaneously tackle climate change while ensuring a secure source of energy. Not a very novel policy objective, some might argue. Some might start to yawn at this point, knowing that these are the stated policy objectives of every government around the world.
However, there is something that is very novel about this report — something that distinguishes it from many other governmental policy reports — and that “something something” is important to understand.
Like the other European Union nations, the UK has agreed to the binding target of 20% of total energy from renewable sources. As such, this recent report outlines a roadmap and the considerations that are necessary to implement that target. What makes this a seminal document is that it explicitly articulates how important renewable heat — in addition to the standard focus on electricity — will be to meet the stated energy targets. But the report goes further than just recognizing the essentialness of the renewable heat contribution; it analyses in depth the current sources of energy used in the UK and lays out a comprehensive strategy for spearheading the deployment of renewable heat on a widespread scale.
Basically, the UK needs to go from a 1.5% share of renewable energy in their overall energy mix to 15% by 2020. Given that this represents a ten-fold increase, the question they have correctly identified is how is this realistically feasible? The report makes the point that in order to close the gap in terms of total energy coming from renewable sources, it might be easier to increase the share of renewable heat to a certain level, than to increase the level of renewable electricity, given the issues of grid capacity. Since renewable heat tends to be generated onsite, as opposed to distributed generation, the constraints affecting take-up are “modest.”
The Situation Thus Far
Globally, heating accounts for an estimated 50% of the total energy used in the building sector, and therefore it is one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions. Meaningful carbon reductions cannot be met without targeting this use of energy. Furthermore, the unit costs to generate renewable heat tends to be substantially less then the unit cost to generate renewable electricity, which means that to displace a certain amount of total energy, it will cost less money to displace the heating component. So given considerations of efficiency, governments should be extremely aggressive in providing the necessary mechanisms to allow for the most cost-effective uptake in renewable heat technology.
In the UK, heat accounts for 49% of the final energy demand and 47% of carbon emissions. Up this point, this huge proportion of energy that is necessary for indoor space, ventilation, and water heating has not been adequately examined in terms of how it could be generated using renewable sources. With the new UK Renewable Energy Strategy, “decarbonising” the heating component is stated as being necessary to achieve the 15% renewable energy target. It is also recognized that this will require “develop[ing] a completely new approach to renewable heat [and] providing substantial incentives to jump-start this new market.”
Now, as a caveat, I would disagree that the renewable heat technologies are “new” because there are many excellent solar thermal technologies that are being deployed around the world, but I think the point that is trying to be made is that as a market, “renewable heat” is just starting to come to the forefront. One other inaccuracy that I feel obliged to point out is that the report defines “solar thermal” as being only solar water heating, while omitting solar air heating. This is a serious flaw because solar air heating targets the largest usage of energy in the commercial and industrial sector (indoor space & ventilation heating). As well, independent monitoring analysis conducted in the UK by BSRIA has shown that solar air heating by itself is capable of fulfilling the 10% renewable energy target for set forth by the Merton Rule.
Translating political objectives into action is at the crux of any good policy strategy. Accordingly, the UK Renewable Energy Strategy details the possible policy measures that could be used to jump-start the use of renewable heating. These government support mechanisms will be essential because without them, the current policies will only take the UK to a 5% level by 2020. This is why the status quo clearly cannot stand, and the report identifies the following options:
Direct financial support in the form of a grant to clients who install solar or other renewable heating systems.
Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme: This would likely take the form of a feed-in-tariff at a fixed £/MWh of thermal heat produced (like the feed-in-tariff used to drive the PV industry).
Renewable Heat Obligation: This would require that a certain percentage of heat energy in the UK be generated using solar, biomass or other renewable choices. Users would have to present Renewable Heat Certificates.
Cap and Trade System: This is a more general climate change strategy designed to make the cost of all carbon-based fuels higher, and therefore help facilitate the transition to a broad range of renewable energy technologies.
In theory, all these policies will stimulate the use of renewable heat. However, when examining the practicality and costs of each scheme, the report makes a firm recommendation in favor of a Renewable Heat Incentive.
On the matter of increasing the share of electric heat, the report argues against this on the basis that the electricity grid in the UK would have to be expanded by 130% in order to meet the peak winter heating demand. This would be contrary to the UK’s energy objectives of decreasing total energy to meet the 2020 targets.
This emphasis on renewable heat is of the utmost extremely relevant for the United States and Canada — and perhaps even more so — because the overall heating load in these countries tends to be higher than it is in UK. It is essential from a variety of perspectives that municipalities and state energy offices recognize the necessity of crafting and aggressively promoting renewable heat strategies.
This will allow the renewable heat industry to finally make a meaningful contribution to climate change that is proportionate to the benefits they offer in terms of CO2 displacement, energy production, and cost-effectiveness.
Victoria Hollick is the VP of Operations at Conserval Engineering, which has been instrumental in promoting solar air heating around the world for the commercial & industrial sector with the SolarWall technology. Victoria has had a life-long interest in solar, and became further interested in effecting environmental and renewable energy policy while completing a graduate degree in economics. She is also the Vice President of the Canadian Solar Industries Association.