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Where are renewables now?

The RHI will ultimately become instrumental in the growth of the UK's renewable energy market - but where are we at this time? FETA puts the renewable energy market into its current context.
At last the prospect of the RHI being rolled out to both domestic and non-domestic sectors looks like a reality with the announcement by the Department of Energy and Climate Change on 12 July 2013 that the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is due to be launched in April 2014.

The Federation of Environmental Trade Associations (FETA) consists of six trade associations with many other product groups interspersed among them.

Of these, the two associations that have key interests in the renewable energy sector are the Heat Pump Association (HPA) relating directly to the impact of renewable heat from heat pumps, and the British Flue and Chimney Manufacturers Association (BFCMA), who is indirectly involved in the field of heat from biomass.

Both heat pumps and biomass are included within the European Directive for the Promotion of Energy from Renewable Sources (RES) and also within the UK's RHI, albeit this is being rolled out in phases.

The RHI has been available for a limited number of technologies in purely non-domestic situations since 2011 but what we really need is the RHI fully adopted with all the technologies that are recognised by the EU RES directive included in both domestic and non-domestic applications. This is essential because a partial launch inevitably leads to market distortion making it extremely difficult not only to assess the current impact but also what might happen once full implementation takes place. The longer this situation exists the harder it gets.

The deployment of renewable energy has really taken off since the original announcement of RHI on 15 July 2009 despite the lack of real financial support for much of this period. At the very least renewables are being discussed now, even socially, and this must be seen as a positive.

However, the hard truth is that the vast majority of the population is ultimately driven by financial interests over and above any implied environmental concerns. In this regard we have very short-term views on payback periods and hence even on off-gas grid situations where the running cost case is undeniable, additional financial incentives are still essential to offset the relatively high initial costs.

Building Regulations
The only other driver is compulsion, requiring the use of renewables through the building regulations, for example. However the building regulations are not addressing the issue of renewables in new-build and not at all in refurbishment. In order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2016, renewable technologies will need to be deployed much more widely.

However, current proposals in new-build are to achieve carbon reduction through fabric and efficient environmental services (FEES). This means that the proposed 2013 Building Regulations will only require approximately 8% carbon reduction and, thus, is not even halfway to carbon neutrality despite being just three years away from the target date of 2016.

Then there is the issue of the building regulations for existing buildings. The government seems to have abandoned consequential improvements following an ill-informed attack from the popular media. This represents a serious U-turn which otherwise could have shown that the issue of retrofitting renewables such as heat pumps as being more viable.

Requiring a whole building to have its thermal integrity improved, rather than just a super thermally efficient extension, makes a lot of sense. This could also significantly widen options for alternatives such as heat pumps which need to operate at lower flow temperatures than other forms of heating. Improving thermal integrity often means that heat emitters are able to provide the new heat requirement at lower flow temperatures.

However, the most serious issue is that without RHI being currently available to all renewable technologies for all types of buildings (old and new; domestic and non-domestic) there are neither financial incentives nor legislative drivers in place.

Biomass is becoming one of the most important heat sources. There has been a steady increase in the take up of biomass as both a practical way to cut fuel bills and an environmentally-friendly answer to providing renewable heat. The BFCMA has joined with the Stove Industry Alliance to promote the use of stoves and wood as an effective way to promote the use of chimneys and flues prior to expected inclusion within the much awaited domestic RHI.

With wood logs being virtually carbon neutral, there is a real opportunity for heat pumps and stove manufactures to work together to create an energy efficient and low carbon building.

Renewable heat means greater energy security. The UK's Renewable Energy Strategy, covering heat, electricity and transport is estimated to reduce fossil gas imports by 20%-30% by 2020 and biomass will play a major role in this reduction.

Future
Manufacturers have invested considerable amounts of money into developing new and better performing products. This investment needs to be recovered, but there is still work on-going, not just to improve existing equipment, but to develop new equipment - even going as far as looking at new genre's such as hybrid gas boilers and heat pumps.

This might include integrated gas boilers and electric heat pumps or the domestication of gas absorption heat pumps. Yet improvements in the design and application of electric vapour compression models could make these other developments less attractive.

Regarding the RHI, we glimpse light at the end of the tunnel, but its still some way to the end as there is much detail to be resolved before April 2014. We have to be wary also as proposals for the revision of the F-Gas Regulation from the EU will look to phase down, restrict, or even ban the refrigerants currently used widely in the heat pumps that Europe also agrees will help solve the renewable energy agenda.

Then there is the conflict between health hazard concerns from legionellae and the low temperatures required for heat pump efficiency. These too work in opposition to each other.

Hence both these conundrums of conflicting legislation need to be addressed as we don't want the 'gifts' presented by one hand being taken away again by the other.
15 August 2013

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