Daniel Burton 20 October 2020

Keep all options on the table to decarbonise heat

As well as playing a vital role in tackling climate change, energy-efficient housing is essential to reduce fuel bills for residents. Despite government efforts, there has been very little change in the number of families in fuel poverty over the last 10 years.

In pursuing net-zero heating solutions, the largest challenge to action is economic, be that financial constraints faced by local authorities or the shrinking profit margins of private developers. How is it possible to meet the sustainability criteria of today without incurring an economic burden that is neither scalable nor practical?

To deliver low-carbon heating, at scale – without breaking the bank, local authorities are considering the latest technology-driven solutions alongside more familiar products on the market. Technology is making rapid progress in the area of domestic heating, and by deploying solar PV, battery storage, and a network of sensors combined with machine learning it is possible to create an intelligent heating system that maximises comfort while minimising cost.

A change of mindset

For many years, gas has been the go-to solution for domestic heating and hot water. However, from 2025, no new homes should be connected to the gas grid. Housing developers must look for the most efficient way to heat homes using electricity.

With gas being so much part of the current mindset, it’s hardly surprising that air source heat pumps (ASHPs) – which rely on a familiar ‘wet system’ setup using thermostats and radiators – are currently the popular way to electrify domestic heating and hot water.

But ASHPs are not necessarily the ideal solution in every case. Heat pumps rely on a ‘low and slow’ approach – drawing heat from the environment to gently but steadily heat homes. This works well if homes are extremely well insulated and the outside temperatures are not too low. Otherwise, either the heat is lost too quickly, or the system needs to operate well outside its margins of efficiency.

Retrofitting air-source heat pumps to older properties can be challenging and expensive, as upgrading insulation to sufficient levels increases costs. The old central heating system needs to be replaced with an external compressor unit, new hot water tank, heating water clusters and more. Oversized radiators may be required to compensate for the lower running temperature.

Technology-driven solutions offer an alternative approach.

An energy solution for the digital age

Manchester City Council recently trialled a different approach to electrifying domestic heating in a new-build development in West Gorton, Greater Manchester. The affordable houses were equipped with modern digital and renewable energy solutions that can deliver reductions to energy bills of up to 90% for tenants.

The mews-style three-bedroom homes, built by Keepmoat Homes in partnership with Manchester City Council, are fitted with solar PV and battery storage. But what makes them unique is the intelligent solution that ties these elements together. The self-learning system, designed by Wondrwall, automatically adapts heating, lighting, security and energy consumption according to the behaviour of the occupants, environmental conditions and wholesale energy costs.

A combination of electric underfloor heating and infrared panels can quickly provide warmth when needed and the intelligent, partitioned, hot-water cylinder heats water only when needed. A combination of solar panels, inverter and battery storage provides free electricity from the sun and enables the system to take advantage of hourly fluctuations in energy costs. For new and old properties, the cost of installing this compares favourably with wet heating systems, heat pumps and high levels of insulation.

As we work towards net zero targets, all options need to be on the table. Traditional wet systems, powered by air-source heat pumps, are sure to play a role in many projects. Smart and agile solutions, however, which use advanced technology to get the best out of electric heat sources, may be a better fit in many situations – especially for local authorities, social landlords and housing developers that need to build and retrofit affordable housing. A combination of AI, IoT and renewable energy could unlock the door to convenience, comfort and cost savings for tenants in affordable housing.

Daniel Burton is CEO of Wondrwall

Photo: © Wondrwall

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