A tailored approach to decarbonising domestic heating

Technology in Gorton homes.

A range of different approaches is needed to decarbonise domestic heating, writes Daniel Burton, CEO, Wondrwall

Recent initiatives, including the Green Homes Grant and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, show that tackling emissions from domestic heating is high on the Government’s agenda. But there is a long way to go. Currently, only about 5% of homes currently have any form of low carbon heating while natural gas is used to heat around 85% of homes.

There is often a temptation when faced with a large task, to opt for a blanket solution – but to successfully de-carbonise domestic heating, we need to consider a range of low-carbon alternatives. Choosing the best low carbon heating solution on a place-by-place basis will make far better use of available funds than a one-size-fits-all solution.

The established view is that the best way to decarbonise domestic heating is to invest heavily in insulation, and then install a heat pump. Whilst this can work in many situations, it is not always the most cost-effective way approach.

‘Low and slow’ doesn’t always win the race

For many years, gas was the go-to solution for domestic heating and hot water, and direct electric heating only considered where gas was not available. This may account for the fact that that heat pumps – which, like gas, rely on pipes, thermostats and radiators – are currently the most popular way to decarbonise domestic heating and hot water.

But while heat pumps do have a lot to recommend them, they are not the best option in every case. Heat pumps rely on a ‘low and slow’ approach – drawing heat from the environment to gently but steadily heat homes. This can work well if homes are extremely well insulated and the outside temperatures are not too low. Otherwise, either the heat is lost too quickly, or the system needs to operate well outside its margins of efficiency.

There is another option, however.

Smart meets renewable

Manchester City Council recently explored a different approach to electrifying domestic heating in a new-build development in West Gorton, Greater Manchester. The affordable houses were equipped with modern digital and renewable energy solutions that can deliver reductions to energy bills of up to 90% for tenants.

The mews-style three-bedroom homes, built in partnership with Manchester City Council, are fitted with solar PV and battery storage. But what makes them unique is the intelligent solution that ties these elements together. The self-learning system, designed by Wondrwall, automatically adapts heating, lighting, security and energy consumption according to the behaviour of the occupants, environmental conditions and wholesale energy costs.

Electric underfloor heating and infrared panels quickly provide warmth when required, and the intelligent, partitioned, hot-water cylinder heats water only when needed. A system comprising solar panels, inverter and battery storage provides free electricity from the sun and enables the tenants to take advantage of hourly fluctuations in energy costs. For new and old properties, the cost of installing this ‘smart and agile’ solution compares favourably with wet heating systems, heat pumps and high levels of insulation.

A real-time, data-led solution

The key to the effectiveness of the system, is its ability to learn and adapt to information in real time. The system will begin a typical day by checking the weather forecast shortly after midnight. Combining this information with what it knows about the behaviour of the occupants and the performance of the solar panels, it predicts how much electricity it needs to draw from the grid to meet the family’s needs for the day.

The system then analyses time-of-use tariffs for the day and determines the most cost-effective time to charge the domestic batteries. If there is an unexpected energy requirement during the day, the system might respond by supplying energy from the battery and importing energy from the grid. Conversely, if there is a spike in energy from the PV solar panels, the system will export energy back to the grid. During the evening, when energy prices are at their peak the system powers the house entirely from energy stored in the battery. After midnight, the system processes the day’s data, adjusts its algorithm accordingly, and the cycle begins again.

Maximising resources

Faced with a large task in decarbonising UK housing, we need to consider the whole range of solutions available and apply the most effective solution in each case. It’s clear from the West Gorton project that ‘fabric first’ is not the only way option. A smart and agile approach may be a better fit in many situations.

For more info: wondrwall.co.uk

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