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Energy Conversations: Electric Blues

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Pathways to a lower carbon Britain

An event last week at the Building Centre focused upon the challenge of moving Britain from fossil fuel dependency to cleaner alternative energy sources, particularly electricity. Chaired by Alasdair Young of Buro Happold, the panel included:

First off, the panel acknowledged that a wide range of low carbon technologies already exist:

  • heat pumps, geothermal, biomass and solar hot water for heat generation
  • wind, tide and photovoltaics for electricity  
  • gas and biomass-fired combined heat and power for both

Government policy is a key driver in determining the rate of uptake of these technologies. Systems that are easy to connect to existing infrastructure will be most cost effective and viable.

Energy Flow Chart, DECC

UK Energy Flow Chart 2011, DECC

All speakers agreed that the key obstacle for adopting alternate energy is existing infrastructure.  Current distribution networks of pipes, wires and cables – all  predominantly buried underground  - need severe upgrading to increase energy efficiency. This would be a more cost effective first step than investing in new systems, however it is ‘a large operational and logistical nightmare,’ according to the National Grid’s Steven Marland. Most power stations are located close to energy sources which are often far from demand, which results in huge energy losses.

Rotheray noted that 46 per cent of UK energy is spent on heating and only 8 per cent on lighting/appliances. Therefore we must develop an approach which recognises heat as the important driver in our energy economy. Peaks in heating demand are difficult to meet, whereas electric demand remains  relatively constant demand throughout the year, as shown in the graph below by the blue bar. 

UK supply and demand of heat and electricity

UK supply and demand of heat and electricity, London Loughborough Centre for doctoral research in energy demand

Acknowledging the critical role of space heating, Marland agreed that electricity it is not efficient for this use.  A balance between heat and electric systems must be found. Hybrid heat pumps (a gas boiler connected to an electric heat pump) exist but are not yet financially viable.

A more decentralised approach as a way forward

Steve Harris of the Energy Saving Cooperative argued that energy use will continue to increase with more dependency on technology, but that ‘people’ should not be underestimated. With the imminent closure of Oxfordshire Didcot nuclear power station in 2015 (for failing to meet carbon emission standards), Oxford University have begun a study on alternate electricity generation, which includes a decentralised biomass CHP. A moving back towards local or neighbourhood scale energy supply would increase efficiency  but still requires vast new infrastructure.  Smaller local plants may be unable to cope with demand in dense urban areas.

Smart technology as a way forward

The panel agreed that interactive smart technology has the potential to drastically alter energy patterns by increasing consumers’ awareness of their energy behaviour.  David Hurst believes that ‘time-based tariffs’ would create real competition between energy companies and a direct relationship with consumers, forcing a change in behaviour. It would allow for a more open market where consumers could decide when to use energy and at what price.

The discussion rather frustratingly concluded that there is no clear solution or quick fix to ‘cleaner’ energy.  It’s all about incremental steps and behavioural change.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The only way forward, unless we all drastically reduce our energy demands, and this ain't going to happen any time soon, is the development of the only realistic 'green energy', using liquid salt-cooled nuclear power stations. Come on people, stop pussyfooting around, and get on with it!

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