This week I took part in a panel discussion for an event called Everything Change, which involved a series of online discussions, talks, and events looking at the role of creativity, adaptive thinking and storytelling in overcoming the challenges of the climate and ecological crises. I was in the Changing Energy discussion, one of seven societal areas of change inspired by Wales’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) being explored during this programme of events. To kick off the session we were each asked to talk about what we believe to be the biggest challenges for a changing energy landscape.
Sticking to what I know, I focused on the energy used in the built environment. In this area, I think one of the most significant challenge we face is the decarbonisation of energy used for heating our buildings, particularly homes, and particularly when dealing with the existing housing stock in the UK. According to the Energy Savings Trust, 22% of total carbon emissions in the UK come from our homes – that includes energy used to provide hot water and powering our appliances and devices, as well as heating and cooling.
Decarbonising heating is especially challenging for us here in Wales, as we have the oldest housing stock in the UK – 26% of Welsh housing dates pre-1919; and this means that retrofitting much of our existing housing stock is difficult or in some cases unviable, either due to excessive costs or the nature of the buildings.
The Climate Change Committee has recommended that all homes should have an energy performance certificate (or EPC) rating of C or above from 2028, in order for us to reach our net zero target by 2050. A recent article on this, stated that almost 1.7 million homes in England and Wales with a current EPC rating between D and G cannot be improved to reach a C rating. In Gwynedd in Wales, over 77% of homes have a rating of D or below, and the same research predicted this could only be reduced to about 22% if the recommended improvements were made.
There are many challenges to switching to low carbon energy, such as: costs – like the costs in replacing all gas boilers and oil heating systems with low carbon alternatives, consumer behaviour, skills, supply chain issues (e.g. are there are enough heat pumps to replace gas boilers currently, or enough skilled installers?).
What can we do to address this challenge?
I think one of the most impactful solutions we can take is to adopt an “energy flexibility” approach, which combines local renewable energy generation and energy storage with smart control strategies to enable buildings to have a flexible relationship with the grid, and to maximise the amount of low carbon renewable energy that can be used; while also easing pressures on the existing grid infrastructure, and reducing the need for costly and disruptive grid upgrades.
Energy storage is the key to this, as it enables electricity to be drawn from the grid at times of lower carbon intensity, for example (that is, when the grid energy mix is largely coming from renewables such as wind and solar); for use at a later time of day when the carbon intensity may be higher. Conversely, energy storage can be programmed to export energy to the grid, when the grid carbon intensity would otherwise be high.
So, when energy is consumed is becoming almost as important as how much energy is used.
The approach we need to take, and what the Active Building concept aims to achieve, is to reduce the amount of energy we use and, at the same time, reduce the carbon intensity of that energy, through a combination of actions:
- construct thermally efficient and airtight buildings;
- adopt a flexible approach to maximise use of low carbon energy;
- ensure use of efficient building services equipment;
- install and commission building systems properly;
- monitor our building energy performance and use energy and comfort data to drive best operation and optimisation;
- ensure building users understand how a building should operate;
- and make sure building users have an awareness of their energy consumption and how their individual behaviours can impact on their energy usage.
We are seeing an increasing number of demand response solutions now that, combined with a growing number of distributed energy resources, such as rooftop PV, battery storage and electric vehicles, are creating new opportunities for residential buildings to act as virtual power plants (VPPs).
The UK’s biggest domestic demand side response (DSR) pilot project, called “Flatline”, has just been completed in Wales. This was led by Sero and PassivSystems and demonstrated a 25% reduction in energy bills, as well as significant savings in carbon emissions.
We have been involved in several projects which aim to facilitate DSR strategies, to change when energy is consumed through energy storage and controls; and simplified energy trading systems enabling buildings to act as VPPs. Two of the companies we are currently working with include Measurable and CarbonTrack. For both companies, we are using our Active Building demonstrators as test-beds for their new technologies, providing valuable data to enable them to refine their products to develop commercial offerings. We were also recently involved in another demonstration project called FRED, which tested similar strategies.
And a recent Carbon Trust report, called “Flexibility in Great Britain”, published last month, claimed that a flexible approach is critical to decarbonising energy – an approach incorporating demand side response, energy storage and a mix of low carbon energy sources. The report states that embedding flexibility in the UK electricity system could deliver up to £16.7 billion in savings each year by 2050, so we have a massive opportunity to save money as well as carbon using this approach.
If you want more details on DSR, this video produced by SPECIFIC provides a really clear explanation.