Last reviewed 5 November 2021
Solving energy shortages, “building back greener” and tackling climate change are high-level issues that once major decisions are taken, must be delivered by thousands of companies in their ordinary daily operations. Jon Herbert reports on what lies ahead.
It is difficult not to notice that we are in a time of significant change.
Although many of the efforts to resolve the world’s environmental climate crisis are taking place at a government and international level, the effects will be felt by businesses of all sizes.
Similarly, the actions of millions of SMEs will help to make large enabling strategies being negotiated on a global level at forums like the UN’s November 2021 COP26 summit in Glasgow work in every-day practice.
Which means — as shown below — that small businesses must, firstly, be aware of what lies ahead, secondly, be ready to cope with it, and thirdly, turn unfamiliar situations to their commercial advantage.
Keeping things cool
The current energy crisis marks a fault-line in the world’s transition from a two-century dependency on fossil-fuels to the new age of renewable energy needed to keep a rapidly warming world cool.
COP26’s “decarbonising” goal is to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rapidly enough to keep damaging future surface temperature rises down to 2.0°C, or preferably 1.5°C, this century.
Cutting GHGs is “mitigation”. However, as storms, floods and droughts get worse, the UK must also adapt to permanent change and build “resilience” — the ability to bounce back quickly from events that are not completely controlled.
If things get bad
In the worst scenarios, there are fears that tipping points like sea level rises caused by rapid polar ice melting, rainforests as carbon “sources” rather than “sinks”, plus a slower Gulf Stream and meandering jet stream that both bring more unpredictable extreme weather, might be irreversible.
This is where at a grassroots level new technologies, behavioural changes, government initiatives — and what companies and individuals do at ground zero — becomes very important.
Knowing what is waiting in the pipeline makes this easier.
The UK is co-hosting COP26 in Glasgow and recently published a new strategy it hopes the world will copy to support its legally-binding commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The Net Zero Strategy takes forward points first listed in the The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution Policy paper announced by the Government a year ago.
Specifically, the strategy aims to:
unlock up to £90 billion of private infrastructure finance by 2030
add extra funding to the £1 billion commitment to electrify UK road vehicles, their supply chains and infrastructure, including charge points
help to develop a UK-wide hydrogen economy
support green technology innovations
provide £3.9 billion to decarbonise heat and buildings
boost the nature for climate fund to restore 280,000 hectares of peat and treble woodland creation to at least 30,000 hectares annually
tentatively support the development of Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk, small modular reactors (SMR) at Wylfa on Anglesey, and a fledgling nuclear fusion programme.
However, critics note the UK’s £120 billion HS2 rail project is going ahead with energy-intensive concrete, the 27 billion road programme is unaffected, short-haul air flights are being supported, and oil and gas drilling continues.
The ideal property
How might companies respond to this complex agenda within their own business boundaries?
Given ideal resources, they could install solar panels with the potential to produce so much energy that, depending on their work processes, surplus electricity is sold at a profit. However, given the intermittency of renewables like offshore wind, they may add battery storage.
Unless they are on flood-prone ground, by adding gravel surfaces to drain water away, green roofs that reduce rainwater run-off, plus sub-surface soakaways, they can safely store high levels of rainfall until they disperse naturally.
Meanwhile, underground piping connected to ground-source heat pumps that are more energy efficient than conventional boilers could extract heat from the soil and boost it to temperatures needed for underfloor heating and hot water.
Ironically, one concern is that well-insulated homes and buildings might actually be too warm as temperatures rise!
Neighbourhood energy hubs
Another way of viewing future properties is as energy hubs that store electricity from the grid when renewable supplies are plentiful and sell it back at a profit when demand levels surge elsewhere.
However, the renewable energy intermittency gap can also be filled by smart grids that distribute and use local electricity more flexibly. Supermarkets, for example, are turning freezers off briefly to save and share power. Similarly, washing machines can be timed to use cheap off-peak energy.
Some hotels are doing the same with their air conditioning, while asphalt plants are super-heating asphalt when power is cheap and allowing temperatures to drop again when demand peaks.
Steel giant Corus has also volunteered to switch off its supply occasionally for a price of £45,000 per Megawatt. By one estimate, the “flex-elecs” market will be worth £2.4 billion annually by 2030.
Energy on demand
Demand side response (DSR) is all about intelligent energy use. Trials have shown that DSR systems can cut utility bills for electrical heating and electric cars by 49%, with added CO2 savings.
The concept is that, rather than charging by kilowatt hours, it is better to modify a user’s power consumption to match wider demands for power, soften peaks in demand, and fill in troughs.
As Insulate Britain points out, insulation is critical. Energy performance certificates (EPCs) rate home energy-efficiency. The Government’s target is for all houses to achieve band C by 2035; currently only 40% do. For net zero, the target needs to be band A.
Better workplace and home heating
With gas boilers now seen as bad carbon emission sources, alternatives are urgently needed. As shown in a moment, there is a range of alternatives.
However, one growing option is for efficient “district heating” where hot water is pumped around multiple buildings from a central source. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) believes 20% of homes will be serviced this way by 2027; the National Grid says heating accounts for 20% of UK emissions.
The concept is to extract high volumes of low-grade heat from a pattern of ground boreholes using heat pumps that are essentially a reverse process of domestic fridges and freezers.
Scandinavian countries — with cold winters and hot summers — have pioneered the technology of using heat pumps to store the heat of summer deep underground and retrieve it again in winter.
Death of the boiler and alternatives
If the gas boiler is to be phased out, the first priority might be a “fabric-first” approach to insulate buildings and reduce their heat needs before alternatives are considered. The thought is that there is a cost to manufacturing and installing heat pumps which will fall over time.
Hydrogen boilers — the Government is keen to see green hydrogen as a clean energy carrier — that is easy to substitute for gas — become commonplace in homes and properties. One problem identified is that a transition could mask existing gas boiler inefficiencies; most gas boilers underperform by 10–25% on their A-rated label efficiencies.
Air source heat pumps — set up correctly, they can generate 3–4 units of “free” energy for every unit of electricity used. But without retrofitted insulation, they currently best suit houses built after 2000.
Heat pumps work most efficiently when run at low temperatures which are too low to heat older properties without large replacement radiators. The CCC says 5.5 million heat pumps must be fitted this decade — 2.2 million in new build homes and 1 million to off-grid properties.
Solar thermal panels are the most efficient energy source available and pipe water heated by the sun as instantaneously available hot water and/or to radiators. But the energy cannot be stored.
Solar PV panels (photo-voltaic) are less efficient but produce electricity consistently throughout the year for appliances like fridges, or storage batteries that can be used on demand.
Hybrid heat pumps
Hybrid heat pumps combine oil or gas fossil-fuel boilers with air source heat pumps to top up low temperature heat. They work best in well insulated properties.
Existing gas boilers are often retained so that older properties can begin to decarbonise before insulation is fitted. The boilers are then removed at the end-of-life. The CCC sees hybrid systems as a key method of decarbonising homes over the next decade.
Infrared heating panels
Infrared heating panels are a new form of heating. They emit infrared energy that is absorbed by solid objects so that vibrating molecules warm nearby objects. They are very effective in both summer and winter.
These are a new innovation that it is estimated to cut gas boiler use by nearly 25%.
The idea is that consumers choose how much to spend on what they want — feeling warm and comfortable — rather than paying for kilowatt-hours of energy. Once a service provider understands a consumer, they can help to pick the best low-carbon system that is easy to install.
Transport is also a crucial GHG emissions source the Government is keen to cap. Hydrogen-fuel cells that produce electrical power from the chemical bonds in water molecules are seen as a solution most appropriate for vehicles above 3.5 tonnes in weight.
However, the Government’s preferred option is electric vehicle (EV) cars and vans. By 2035, all nations are expected to ban new petrol and diesel car sales. The UK has set a date of 2030 and already brought it forward twice following CCC criticism.