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Zero-carbon electricity 'could replace gas for heating'

A major report from the influential Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) has foreseen 'zero-carbon electricity replacing natural gas as the energy source for space and water heating'.
Zero-carbon electricity
As global warming takes hold, electricity could become the only way to heat because it is the only form of central energy generation that can be decarbonised.

The highly respected IPPR used the same energy model employed by government, the Energy White Paper, and by Imperial College London when contributing to the Stern report into the economics of climate change.

This model illustrates how the carbon released through electricity production will halve by 2020, with continuing reductions thereafter.

Welcoming the report, Richard Scott, director of marketing at Applied Energy, said: 'The carbon content of gas will always be fixed. The carbon content of electricity continues to fall; in fact it's the only source of central energy generation that can be de-carbonised.

'Low-carbon electricity holds out a brighter future of low-carbon heating and hot water with electric products. If we are to reduce the devastating impact of climate change and improve the UK's security of energy supplies, we need to recognise, as many other countries are now doing, that electricity has a significant contribution to make.'

Some still doubt the science of climate change. This year's United Nations inter-governmental panel on climate change attempted to end the argument, stating that climate change is 'unequivocal' and may bring 'abrupt and irreversible impacts'.

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon on launching the report said: 'Today the world's scientists have spoken clearly and with one voice.' The majority of the world's experts on climate change said they were 90% certain that man-made factors were the main cause of global warming.

In any scientific discipline, there will always be some dissenting voices which put forward alternative theories. Good science requires that these voices are heard. But, when the projected threat to life is so great, and consensus about the cause now so widespread, we have no choice but to act. The debate cannot continue indefinitely.

The report, written by more than 200 of the world's leading experts in related sciences, confirmed that a further rise of between 1.8 and 4 degrees can be expected. They concluded this could result in 20% -30% of species facing a high risk of extinction. Up to two billion people face increased water scarcity. And up to 250 million face hunger as crop yields fall, and homelessness as sea levels rise.

The UK Energy Bill, due in a few months, therefore looks set to usher in a new era for micro-generation and low-carbon electricity, as both become integral to reducing carbon emissions and improving energy security. At least these are the stated aims of the Energy Bill. But many people are now pointing to existing and even future planned changes to the Building Regulations which already look out of date and run counter to these objectives; in some instances even blocking them.

Scott of Applied Energy, home to Creda, Xpelair and Redring, said: 'Cost-effective low-carbon homes are best achieved with a mix of improved air-tightness and thermal efficiency of construction, combined with the appropriate use of technologies like mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, micro-wind turbines, solar hot water and heat-pumps.'

But it is always better to require less energy in the first place. The next revision of Part L of the building regulations must introduce tougher mandatory U-values and levels of air-tightness.

It is within air-tight, thermally efficient homes that modern electric heating and hot water will, as this major report confirms, play a vital role. The Energy White Paper (2007) clearly stated that one of the best strategic options for heating homes into the future is 'heating from low-carbon electricity'.

This has been understood for some time in many countries around the world. Japan has long recognised that electricity is the only truly sustainable fuel. The UK is lagging far behind this progressive thinking.

Some 56% of the world's gas reserves are in just three countries: Russia, Iran and Qatar. In two years time, 33% of the UK's gas will need to be imported and by 2020 it will be 80%.

Financial Times columnist, Martin Wolf recently directed his attention to a report by the International Energy Agency, noting that: 'the world's energy needs will be more than 50% higher in 2030 than today', and going on to predict higher energy prices and a shift in the balance of power to Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is the real consequence of our worsening energy security.

Low-carbon electricity radically improves our security of energy supplies and, as the IPPR and the government's own Energy White Paper have now confirmed, producing heat and hot water from electricity also makes a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

Despite this, the government is currently making plans effectively to abolish electric heating and hot water from UK homes with changes to the Building Regulations that run entirely counter to its own model, and the conclusions of the IPPR.

Nonetheless, moves are under way to ensure future carbon savings from electricity can be built-in to the building regulations. A carbon-milestones table, which could achieve this, now has the backing of many MPs. It would allow the Standard Assessment Procedure used with the Part L of the Building Regulations for calculating carbon emissions, to reference a more realistic projection of the carbon content of different fuel types, during the lifetime of a building.

Buildings stay standing for a long time. Calculating their lifetime carbon footprint on data fixed in 2007 is like basing pensions policy on how many people are retired today and not worrying about how many will retire in years to come. Or perhaps building a school on the basis of how many children lived in a given catchment area last year, instead of how many are likely to live there in the future.

If the increasingly low-carbon electricity of the future cannot be recognised within the Building Regulations then homes which will, at the current rate of renewal of UK housing stock, stand for more than 100 years, will be saddled with gas - a fuel which will still have the same carbon content it has today, and be increasingly difficult to find. This places the UK at the mercy of some less-than-accommodating regimes around the world.

We will have created the most invidious of positions; having no choice but to pay their ever higher price for dwindling supplies of a carbon dioxide producing fuel. Of course at some point the realisation will dawn that to protect our energy security and achieve our climate change targets, houses need to be equipped to make use of low-carbon electricity, especially in the production of heat and hot water.

Unfortunately, by this time the UK's manufacturers of such products may have long been put out of business by Building Regulations which contradicted the objectives of primary legislation and failed to draw upon the government's own analysis and modelling.

The vast majority of the world's scientists now agree on the problem, and there are clear solutions offered by Stern and the IPPR. UK politicians must cease this clarity, reverse the contradictory stance of the Energy White Paper and the Building Regulations, and quickly act to improve security of energy supplies and reduce carbon emissions.

Tougher U-values and air-tightness, and the introduction of a carbon milestones table that allows low-carbon electricity to create the low-carbon heat and hot water of the future, is a surprisingly simple and cost-effective start.
1 December 2007

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