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Is technology about to save the world from climate change?

From the industrial age through to the computer age energy has been at the heart of every heating system. Ian Bradley (right), managing director of MHS Boilers, takes a look at energy efficiency and the heating and ventilating industry
Is technology about to save the world from climate change?
FIRST, there was the industrial revolution - steam power, iron and the Victorian determination to innovate. Then came the second revolution with electricity and motorcars at the forefront. Some call mass production, computers and consumerism the 'third revolution' and now PM Gordon Brown has called for a 'fourth technological revolution', which will transform the world's energy economy. It would, he said, change society as fundamentally as had steam power, the internal combustion engine and the microprocessor.

So is this a dawning of a new age? Is technology going to save the world from abrupt climate change and cataclysmic global warming? Well, it would appear that's what the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) believes. This shouldn't be a shock to the H&V industry. Innovation has always been at the heart of what we do ­- and harnessing technology to reduce harmful emissions and increase efficiency is bread and butter to us.

For example, boiler manufacturers have been developing boilers with greater and greater efficiency. It's hard to believe that it has been only ten years or so since condensing boilers became mainstream in the domestic market. And in the commercial and industrial sector boilers have followed suit. There are, of course, a number of reasons for this - not just the carbon emissions or the fuel usage. One of the main drivers behind energy efficiency since the early 1990s has been the revamped and strengthened Building Regulations - particularly Part L (in both its guises: L1 and L2). This has focused the industry both on saving fuel, and therefore increasing the energy efficiency of boilers themselves, as well as looking at the wider building fabric - air tightness, thermal bridging etc - and the consequent carbon savings that can be made.

In a wider context, green issues have continued to rise up the political agenda. Following its introduction in the Queen's Speech, the Climate Change Bill currently going through Parliament will commit Britain to 60% cuts in greenhouse gases by 2050, with interim targets in a 'carbon budget' every five years. The prime minister has said, however, that the latest evidence suggested developed countries may have to reduce their emissions by 80% over that timescale.

That sounds like a frightening target. But our business has, for a very long time, been working to harness technological change to reduce the environmental impact that heating and hot water have on our world. And it's thanks to technology that we are looking at a rosy future for the H&V industry.

Even though the efficiency of traditional condensing boilers is only increasing by parts of a percentage point, we are finding more and more specifiers and contractors are choosing renewables as a way to increase the overall energy efficiency of the building. It is by combining what is great about existing fossil fuel technology and the best of renewable heating systems that energy efficiency is increased along with drastic reductions in harmful emissions.

That's why MHS Boilers is working with Elco, the original pioneer of solar water heating, to bring a range of tried and tested renewable products to the UK. We are taking the very best in terms of quality and value and combining it with traditional energy efficient fossil fuel back up to create some truly energy saving systems, because when you can generate all the hot water you need for 60% of the year via solar heating, both the energy savings and cost savings really begin to stack up. And it's not just a lot of hot air (or water). The entire athlete's village at the Beijing Olympics will derive its hot water from an Elco solar hot water system. That's more than 10,000 athletes and a lot of showers!

So what about the future? What are the technological developments we can expect? Well, I don't have a crystal ball so I can't be certain. However, every manufacturer is working hard to create products with lower emissions, reduced carbon footprints and sustainable fuel sources. As new buildings are being specifically designed to be very thermally efficient, there is a reduction in the need for excess heating and green technology is being incorporated to generate energy and heat.

We're already getting glimpses of how the industry may look in a few years time. Taking a view from our friends in mainland Europe we'll see a growth in solar hot water, as well as photo voltaics. Dependent to an extent on subsidies and grants, there is a possibility of a sustained and real expansion in this area. Another technology sure to expand is heat pumps. More and more heat pumps - both ground source and air source - are being specified and installed across the UK.

Finally, another growth area is in the realms of combined heat and power - particularly in commercial and industrial contexts.

I think it was another Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who in 1963 championed the changes brought about by the 'white heat of technology'. I wonder what he would make of the long strides forward in energy efficiency since the Swinging '60s?

1 January 2008

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