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It’s not easy being green

We need to provide economically sustainable, energy efficient heating systems to meet the needs of today’s frugal, low carbon economy. Mark Northcott looks at the social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainable heating technologies
It's tough out there. As we struggle to come out of recession, we are faced with pressing environmental, social and political concerns, ranging from climate change to escalating fuel prices, to increased Government legislation and targets. At the root of all these issues is one common denominator: energy.

It's no wonder, then, that the topic of energy is rarely far from the headlines these days, as it affects every corner of our lives. We strive to be green but are faced with financial constraints. What we need is affordable yet sustainable energy to succeed in our low carbon economy.

Sustainability is a much used term, but a complex concept. Renewable Energy and Efficiency Partnership (August 2004) defines sustainable energy as 'the provision of energy that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs'.

To which we can add the need to reconcile environmental, social and economic demands. Some people equate sustainable with renewable in terms of energy. In fact, sustainable energy has two pillars: renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Renewables surge
When the coalition Government came to power, their ambition was to be the 'greenest government yet'. Last year, they introduced new targets and incentives for the building services and heating sectors, and new schemes for businesses such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme, to encourage more efficient use of energy within existing and new build properties. They also set steep targets for a reduction in carbon emissions of 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 from baseline 1990 levels.

With a separate target for doubling our existing level of energy from renewable sources to 15 per cent by 2020, the Government has sought to encourage and financially assist the uptake of renewable technologies through a number of grants, including the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the Green Deal and Feed in Tariffs (FiT).

The surge in renewable technologies has undoubtedly had a positive social outcome, with an estimated increase in employment in this sector of up to half a million jobs by 2020. However, it's not all plain sailing. The green light for RHI for commercial, industrial and domestic community heating was much delayed; and the Government's reductions to PV FiT tariffs were heavily criticised by the renewable industry, as was the way it was handled.

There is no denying that renewable technologies are an important part of the heating solutions mix, particularly technologies such as biomass, but are they truly sustainable in every sense of the term?

For example, while the source of renewable energy is sustainable, can the same be said of the equipment? If we factor in the embedded carbon involved in manufacturing, delivering and servicing renewable products, then renewable equipment may not necessarily be as environmentally sustainable as we thought. The same accusation can be levelled at all heating technologies, of course.

Perhaps crucially, renewable solutions need to be economically sustainable to succeed in today's economic climate. The most expensive carbon cutting solution is not necessarily the best if it means we cannot afford to replicate it. And any technology that is reliant on Government funding is unlikely to survive.

Let's consider now the other 'pillar' of sustainable energy, energy efficiency. Given that 60 per cent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 are already built, according to a report by The Building Research Establishment, improving the energy efficiency in these buildings is key to meeting our carbon reduction targets. Upgrading boilers, improving controls, adding double glazing and insulation, this is both an effective and affordable means of reducing energy consumption.

Gas is still the cleanest fuel available, offering the cheapest installation costs, and the shortest payback time and financial returns. As it is affordable it is also replicable and can be placed in every building in an organisation or chain quickly and simply due to its competitive price.

Savings invested in business
You could arguably make carbon and financial savings in ten buildings with condensing technology and perhaps only the one with renewables. The savings can then be invested into the business or into further green technologies to make more energy savings.

As boiler manufacturers, we at Remeha Commercial have identified the need to challenge boiler efficiencies still further to deliver affordable, full time maximum condensing heating systems. Unfortunately, the maximum efficiencies achieved by condensing boilers under laboratory conditions at low temperatures (30-50 deg C) and half load are rarely achieved in real conditions.

More typically, boilers are run at high loads and high temperatures and still waste around 20 per cent of the energy input through the flue. We believe that with our latest product, the 'super condensing' Quinta Eco Plus, we have the Holy Grail of condensing technology, a system that achieves maximum condensing at all times, offering a new level of attainable efficiency of 97 per cent GVC at 82/71 deg C for buildings. That means £97 of actual usable energy for every £100 of gas input in real time installations rather than laboratory conditions.

Whether we favour the path of renewable energy or energy efficiency, today more than ever consultants, contractors and manufacturers need to look at each individual requirement before deciding the best solution.

// The author is managing director of Remeha Commercial //
1 February 2012


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