I am sure it's no surprise that in my view cost is probably the predominant challenge for many businesses seeking to decarbonize, often in terms of both the capital and operating costs of lower carbon solutions. Typically, there is plenty of ambition to decarbonise amongst the developers and organisations associated with our heat networks, but without an advantageous heat source (i.e. better than air for heat pumps), the economics tend to be challenging.
It's certainly not the only major challenge worth mentioning though. The net zero transition for the whole energy sector will increasingly cause resourcing constraints – even now recruitment and sourcing suitable consultancy support can be a challenge. A couple of other key challenges can be the physical constraints to retrofitting low carbon equipment with larger footprints and the constraints of the electricity grid infrastructure, which is seeing increasing demands from both the transport and heating sectors.
The heat sector is seeing a rapid shift towards heat pumps, at residential scale as well as at heat network and large industrial scale. Heat pump concepts and technology are not new, but we are seeing a focus in incremental innovation in all areas of heat pump application. This includes the use of environmentally benign refrigerants and improvements in efficiency and temperature capability through cascading compression-cycle heat pumps; also, the pairing of heat pumps with recovered heat from datacentres and large transformers.
Innovation in heat/thermal storage is another key area for decarbonising heating and heat networks in particular. The ability to offset when electricity is used to produce heat can help maintain the grid supply-demand balance, with economic and environmental benefits. This can be achieved simply through hot water storage, but we are also seeing innovations in high-temperature storage, using ceramics, steel and phase-change materials.
At our Royal Arsenal Riverside scheme in Woolwich, our ambition to decarbonise has been matched by the developer, Berkeley Homes, who supported a feasibility study into an air-source heat pump installation adjacent to Wellington Park, which currently serves as both a landscaped park and a car park underneath. Our proposal aims to extend the existing park with a landscaped area largely concealing the heat pump installation below. To prevent cold air circulation, an innovative solution was developed to draw in air through the entrances of the car park, away from the fans which quietly eject the cooled air upwards. This concept will help to maintain good heat pump performance and reduce this risk of cold nuisance in and around the park.
The solutions we develop in the heat network sector are rooted in a working knowledge of our existing systems, so optimising full lifecycle performance of our projects is a significant strength we bring to clients.
The expertise within SSE and Distributed Energy covers a wide range of engineering disciplines and energy sector know-how, and good interaction between our teams helps bring additional value to our Whole System Thinking approach. Having the interaction and crossover between teams – and a deep knowledge of the power generation market and electricity transmission & distribution – really enhances the holistic approach we aim to adopt in solving the net zero challenge. Encouraging heat network clients (and policy makers) to look beyond decarbonising just their Scope 1 emissions in the near term and facilitate how heat networks can aid the whole matter of national decarbonisation, rather than exacerbate the challenge, is a key message we advocate. Ultimately, this benefits everyone but can yield economic advantages too for projects and clients.