Energy Efficiency policies in the UK have so far failed to deliver

25th Oct 2016


Mike Foster, the Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA) Chief Executive, provides an industry perspective and discusses what is needed to get the UK firmly on the path to carbon reduction.

Energy underpins everything we do, without it the world in which we live would be radically different. In order to maintain our current and future energy demands, we must manage the energy trilemma- affordability, security and sustainability.

 To do that it is imperative that we have the supporting policy, to drive down emissions and drive up energy efficiency standards. The existing policies are insufficient, coupled with the current political backdrop means that we have investors unwilling to invest and businesses confused by policy.

 The Climate Change Act requires the Government to set the emissions limit for 2028-2032 through the fifth carbon budget. The proposals and policies for meeting our global targets are not yet clear. The Energy and Utilities Alliance would like to see well defined, consistent and realistic policies across all sectors that overcome behavioural barriers and are attractive to owners and landlords of both homes and workplaces.

 The Committee on Climate change- 2016 progress report to Parliament, published in June this year reports the following; 

  • Emissions fell by 3% in 2015. An average of 4.5% a year since 2012, this has been almost entirely due to progress in the power sector
  • There has been almost no progress in the rest of the economy, where emissions have fallen less than 1% a year since 2012 on a temperature-adjusted basis. That is because there has been slow uptake of low-carbon technologies and behaviours in the buildings sector.
  • Buildings emissions accounted for 18% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
  • Direct emissions from buildings have been broadly flat since 2012. Building emissions increased 5% in 2015.

 Evidence suggests that we are not doing enough to reduce emissions and improve the energy efficiency of the (approximately) 1.8 million commercial and industrial properties in the UK. The non-domestic sector is always treated as the poor relation compared to the domestic sector but helping companies to be more energy efficient will not only help the UK economy prosper it will also have a positive impact of the reduction of carbon emissions.

 Anyone involved in managing energy in a commercial or industrial facility will be aware of the significant contribution that heating makes to energy consumption and carbon emissions – as well as the organisation’s overheads.

 Consequently, regulations and directives that influence the design and specification of commercial and industrial heating plant will inevitably have implications for energy management in such buildings. Those responsible for buildings management are well informed and understand the concept of energy efficiency and payback from products. Whilst for individual householders this is often a more difficult sell. So why aren’t we doing more to capitalise on that?

 In response to changing regulations and standards, manufacturers are engaged in an evolutionary process of product design to ensure compliance and also exploit new technologies. In the main, these efforts are directed at improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions as these deliver both financial and environmental benefits. The UK needs policies which maximise the take up of high efficiency products such as commercial boilers.

 In addition to improving energy efficiency, if we are serious about tackling climate change we must utilise all of the ‘tools’ and energy sources available to us. As a result of natural gas abundance, the UK has the world’s leading gas grid infrastructure in place, directly supplying the energy to heat 85 per cent of UK homes. It would be a travesty not to use this existing infrastructure as part of the solution to the trilemma, and “green” gas could be the key.

 There is no definition of what “green” gas is; indeed this is part of the attraction in that there is no winner or silver bullet but instead a range of green gases. Perhaps “low carbon” gas is a better description. 

 Biomethane- This is the gas captured from waste processing, typically anaerobic digestion. The technology is proven, it has worked for years. Companies like Severn Trent clean up the Biomethane from their Minworth sewerage works and inject the “green” gas into the grid.

 BioSNG - a “green” gas that achieves its status because it uses waste materials, usually sent to landfill or incineration, to create the gas. The process is technically complex, it involves Advanced Plasma technology. Ofgem have recently awarded National Grid funding to develop a commercial scale plant in Swindon, having seen the success of smaller trials of the technology. The alternative use of waste gives the gas its “green” credentials. The Swindon plant envisages supplying gas for HGVs but there is nothing to stop it being fed into the gas grid for everyday use once it is blended to reach the gas quality standards required.

 Hydrogen - currently produced from natural gas using Steam Methane Reforming, where the carbon can then be captured. The question is how much hydrogen can be used and in what manner? It is possible, within existing gas quality guidelines, to mix up to 2 per cent of hydrogen into the blend that flows through the gas grid. Some studies suggest that up to 20 per cent might be feasible – remember this makes the overall mix of gas “greener”. However, Northern Gas Networks are conducting a feasibility study into 100 per cent hydrogen through the gas grid. Their Leeds 21 study is arousing considerable interest within the industry on the basis that it envisages using the existing gas grid, conventional heating systems such as central heating in the home saving about ¾ of the overall  carbon emissions.

 This article is not designed to reach the conclusion that one single option can solve the UK’s energy trilemma, there is no silver bullet. However we must give equal focus across domestic and non-domestic energy efficiency policies and we must be open to exploring all of the options available to us.