Leading the way towards net zero: The decarbonisation of heat in the public sector
As we enter a new decade, the importance of climate action in the years to come sits at the forefront of the evolution of estates strategy. Although there are multiple layers to the development of an effective and personalised approach which fits within practical limitations, it is clear that public sector organisations must consider the significance of the decarbonisation of heat in the modernisation and improvement of their estates.
In the 2016 Clean Growth report on transforming heating, the Department for Business, Industry and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) outlined that heat accounted for 37% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, with 17% of this figure being attributed to the heating of buildings.
Additionally, the World Meteorological Organisation’s 2019 report on greenhouse gases notes that heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached a record high, meaning that the continuation of this long-term trend will severely impact the same future generations that public sector institutions such as schools, universities and the NHS look to protect and nurture. National statistics indicate that, in 2018, emissions from the public sector accounted for 2% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. 
Qasim Akhtar, Technical Services Manager at Salix Finance, a government-funded organisation dedicated to financing energy efficiency in the public sector, recommends that; “in order to meet carbon targets there will need to be a stronger focus on the decarbonisation of heat across the public sector. Whilst there is a strong financial incentive in the immediate reduction of costly electricity, focus is also needed on decarbonising heat sources and implementing energy efficiency measures which reduce heat loss through buildings and reduce heat wastage.
Salix are able to offer a tailored and holistic funding approach to each project, in order to create a viable strategy which fulfils internal requirements and delivers long-term carbon and financial savings.”
Within the public sector, there is a clear sense of urgency when it comes to implementing sustainability measures. Many local authorities and education institutions have declared a state of climate emergency, with a view to committing to quantifiable goals and establishing long-term change. In response to this movement, BEIS are set to introduce an Emissions Reduction Pledge in 2020, which will function as guidance for public and higher education sector organisations in England that want to support and report against a voluntary emissions reduction target.
By signing a formal agreement such as this, organisations will be able to reinforce the value of leading by example, in order to influence other public sector bodies and individuals to consider the constructive and realistic steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions. This is particularly important in order to demonstrate that, despite the sometimes-complex nature of the decarbonisation of heat, the benefits of implementing such measures are indisputable and can be achieved through the installation of a variety of different technologies. Furthermore, increased investment in this area is likely to improve the accessibility of both expertise and resources.
Inspiring widescale change is also a continuation of the already influential role that the public sector plays within the UK, with an esteemed reputation for ongoing expertise, education and support for all. This is especially important in the face of critical evidence which demonstrates the consequences of passive or insufficient action and forward planning.
What are the options for public sector organisations?
If your organisation is looking at developing a carbon reduction strategy, there are several options to consider when targeting heat. Some of the main options include the electrification of heating systems and decentralised heat networks in addition to a focus on alternative sources of low carbon heat such as Hydrogen and Bioenergy. There is also a continued role for established energy efficiency measures to minimise unnecessary heating use in buildings.
The electrification of heating systems could start with the installation of air source, ground source and water source heat pumps. It may also be possible to implement hybrid systems which allow the most efficient use of gas, which is only utilised when the pump cannot otherwise meet the full heating requirement. This could mean four parts electricity would be used with only one-part gas. Over time, this may develop to the use of four parts biogas to one-part renewables, which would almost completely eliminate carbon from the process. Hybrid heat pumps can also be used in conjunction with existing boilers and could be a good option for retrofit projects. Within this, there is a role for projects such as moving to low temperature hot water systems to enable the transition towards low carbon heating sources.
Decentralised heat networks may also be a suitable option for many and it may possible to build networks using gas with a view to transition to an alternative energy source in the future. Some networks are also beginning to use heat pump technology and other low carbon heating technologies to fuel the transition towards low carbon heat networks. Heat networks can also capture waste heat from existing subway systems, cooling systems, thermal power plants and heavy industry.
Finally, the future of decarbonisation of heat looks to move towards fuels such as hydrogen, biogas or bio-synthetic natural gas in order to reduce carbon emissions from heat, with trials taking place across the country to understand how these options could be implemented.
Linking to all of these options, there continues to be an important role for established energy efficiency measures to reduce unnecessary heating use in buildings, by improving building fabric insulation, building energy management systems and thermal storage.
Although each estate will face different challenges and requirements, joining the UK-wide community of public sector organisations taking action is a great way to share knowledge, experience and encouragement on the journey to net-zero. Salix currently provides funding for energy efficiency projects across England, Scotland and Wales and is interested to hear from the public sector about their plans to decarbonise heat and their interest in new and innovative technologies that could support both national and internal targets.
First published in the January 2020 issue of Energy in Buildings and Industry.