Low-energy, and therefore low-carbon, products, techniques and ways of working are needed for the built environment to support the UK’s strategic emissions reduction programme. Following the Construction Sector Deal release in July 2018, specific funding details have been updated. Jon Herbert reports.

The Government recently updated and released details of its funding strategy for energy efficiency and heating technology innovation in the built environment. R&D is fundamental to impact improvement — but obviously it takes money.

The drive for greater sustainability coincides with the detailed Construction Sector Deal announcement in July 2018 described as “an ambitious partnership between Government and industry”.

Updated funding guidance released in September is potentially relevant to companies in two ways. Some invitations to tender are included. However, the data is also an indication of the Government’s direction of travel and priorities in encouraging change in construction sector which is broadly seen to be behind the curve in contributing to the UK’s mandatory carbon emission reduction targets.

This old house …

As of September, through Innovate UK, Research Councils and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Government expects to invest circa £184 million. Included is approximately £90 million within the BEIS Energy Innovation Programme to develop low-carbon heating and energy efficiency options for UK homes and businesses.

The UK is said to have Europe’s oldest housing stock: some 19 million homes qualify for energy performance certificate gradings below C. As a result, they use additional energy which raises their carbon footprints unnecessarily. Annual investment in domestic energy efficiency has halved since the end of the Green Deal in 2015. New incentives are needed.

Modern Energy Partners

The prime target for the Government is obviously the public sector estate which covers all central and local government-owned property assets. Here, reduced costs resulting from improvements are the taxpayer’s main benefit, together with long-term environmental gains. A new pilot project called Modern Energy Partners is being formed to explore what are described as novel ways to “drive more ambitious efforts to drive down consumption and emissions”.

SMETER

A further £5 million is being invested to develop, test and demonstrate technologies that can measure the thermal performance of homes using smart meters and other available digital data. These have been grouped under the catchy term of Smart Meter Enabled Thermal Efficiency Ratings (SMETER). Up to £4.1 million of this tranche of funding will go towards innovation projects to develop SMETER tools; individual applicants can apply for up to £1 million.

Up to £900,000 is also being provided for a Technical Assessment Contractor to independently test and demonstrate SMETER tools developed during the project. In both cases, more information is available by emailing BuiltEnviromentalInnovation@beis.gov.uk and using the title SMETER Innovations Competition or SMETER Technical Assessment Contractor.

Building for 2050

A research project led by AECOM, and announced as part of the Construction Sector Deal, is also gathering evidence from real-time housing developments in Swansea, Bristol and Manchester. The objective is to identify any existing barriers to the wider development of low-cost and low-carbon housing.

This is significant for builders, and also in strategic planning, to increase the UK’s housing stock sustainably both during construction and occupancy. The goal is to test innovative methods of construction. Throughout the project, the researchers will work closely with the householders involved to monitor their views and report progress, findings and analysis. The Government is putting £1.4 million into the work to reduce the environmental impact of housing by 2050.

In context, the Construction Sector Deal unveiled in July 2018 is said to represent more than £600 billion in spending over the next decade, with at least £44 billion included for housing. The caveat the Government adds is that the pace of change and size of opportunity involved calls for a construction sector “that is the best in the world”.

Low Carbon Heating Technology Innovation and Building Thermal Efficiency Innovation

Two further programmes are working in tandem. The Government has launched a grant scheme — Low Carbon Heating Technology Innovation — to invest up to £10 million in developing technologies that reduce the carbon emissions associated with heating and hot water provision to UK buildings. It has a similar scheme (Building Thermal Efficiency Innovation) to develop technologies and approaches that improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

Hydrogen innovation for heating

Although the hydrogen economy has been slow in developing, it is now much closer to becoming a reality. Hydrogen derived from natural gas (methane) is now being produced commercially in the UK for use as a zero-carbon fuel. It will also be needed for fuel cells. In an alternative route, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) lobbied the Government in early May to store hydrogen within the gas grid. The idea here is to make use of spare renewable solar and offshore wind energy produced on very sunny or breezy days to split water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. In this model, hydrogen would be mixed safely and burned with North Sea natural gas.

Because of its potential, BEIS has initiated a £25 million project to explore the use of hydrogen gas in heating for UK homes and business. It has appointed Arup+, a team of contractors led by Ove Arup to run the project until 2021. The aim here will be to define a hydrogen quality standard and research, develop and test domestic and commercial hydrogen appliances.

Smart heating systems

The role of technology is not being overlooked. BEIS is also investing £9.8 million in phase 2 of the Smart Systems and Heat Programme run by the Energy Systems Catapult. Building on phase 1 work, the current phase will develop a “Home Energy Services Gateway” to change the relationship between consumers, heating systems and energy suppliers in favour of greater sustainability.

Work with local authorities will be covered to develop low-energy plans, including support for expanding domestic low-carbon heating projects.

Graphene export success

As an example of successful advanced materials innovation, UK company Versarien has signed a major business deal with a South Korean partner to use graphene and 2D composite materials in smart buildings and electric vehicles (EVs).

With Innovate UK support, the Cheltenham-based 2D materials specialist now has a collaboration agreement in place with AXIA Materials Co. Its products will be used in the next generation of sensors and thermal devices for composite building panels and structural composites, as well as to improve EV batteries.

The deal is the result of an Innovate UK global business innovation programme visit to South Korea. Since 2010, Versarien has grown from being a two-person enterprise in a garage into a London Stock Exchange listing with five subsidiaries and more than 100 employees.

Conclusion

As part of the drive to develop more sustainable housebuilding and occupancy, the Government is funding a series of programmes to reduce energy input, and therefore ultimately carbon emissions, associated with providing built environment infrastructure.

In some cases, proposals from interested potential providers are invited. More generally, the investment package highlights areas where the Government has identified a need for additional innovation.

Full details of funding guidance are available at GOV.UK website.

Last reviewed 24 October 2018