Solar panels and other renewables on people's homes, better insulation and a 'smart' electricity grid provide solutions to climate and energy crises – Dylan Ryan

Recent events have highlighted the folly of over-reliance on imported oil and gas.

However, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this knowledge so that it disappears once priorities change, like a passing fad. A long-term commitment to a transition away from fossil fuels is necessary.

More than half of the UK’s energy is consumed by heating buildings, while electricity consumption, by comparison, represents only about 20 per cent of total energy demand. This is why many European countries have been introducing increasingly stringent building codes to improve energy efficiency standards.

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For example, since 2019 Ireland has mandated that all newly built homes must meet the European Union’s near-zero emissions building standards. This means new homes are highly energy efficient, thanks to high levels of insulation, improved air tightness, good use of natural light and energy-efficient appliances.

It’s worth noting that the UK had similar plans under the previous Labour government, which were scrapped by the Tories in 2015 on the grounds of cost. However, this was a very short-sighted move, as such costs tend to be offset by the lower energy bills over the building’s life, plus the associated construction costs have fallen, while heating costs have risen sharply.

Aside from the obvious benefit of lower bills, such buildings are more comfortable to live in. For example, my home is energy performance certificate (EPC) rating B and I’ve barely had to put on the heating so far this winter. One of my relatives in Ireland says he goes around his eco home in his shorts, even in winter. Also in the summer, it’s never uncomfortably hot, even in a heat wave – I just open a couple of windows and that does the trick.

Also, reducing a building’s energy consumption places it within a range whereby adding integrated renewables, such as a solar panel on the roof, a heat pump or a biomass boiler, can meet a substantial proportion, if not all, of the home’s energy requirements. This also provides a level of redundancy. If you have a biomass boiler or solar panels, then you are not as affected by high gas prices and are less vulnerable to the threat of blackouts. A former co-worker of mine’s reaction to the energy crisis was to stick another solar panel on the roof.

While the current energy crisis has led the UK Government to rethink its policy on buildings’ energy efficiency, a significant amount of time has been wasted. The UK now has some of the least energy-efficient building stock in Europe, increasing the UK’s dependence on foreign gas imports. Similarly, the Cameron government’s decision to “cut the green crap” has, according to the Carbon Trust, cost the country £13 billion and counting.

Sources of renewable energy like solar panels and heat pumps can meet much of a well-insulated home’s requirements (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

There is also a pressing need to build a resilient future energy grid to match future needs. For example, if electric cars go mainstream, that’s a whole new set of new electricity users. Heat pumps, while a good alternative to gas boilers for energy-efficient homes, will also place a further burden on the grid in the middle of winter, as they perform least well in colder conditions. The solution is to diversify supply by adding more generation, including from the very homes that are the source of this increased energy demand.

There’s also the option of smart grids. Rather than a car charging at maximum power as soon as it’s plugged in, instead, with smart-grid charging, this can occur at a slower rate, or be delayed to off-peak hours. Current UK legislation does require smart functionality, but in the future we’d want to include the option to sell some of the power from the car back to the grid at peak times when prices are higher, then recharge the car later with cheaper off-peak electricity. Similarly, heat pumps can be programmed to build up a reservoir of heat during off-peak periods for later use during peak hours.

These measures would reduce the peak demand and help balance a renewable-heavy grid, as well as allowing the grid to evolve at a pace which matches the addition of these new electricity loads. In fact, the National Grid is currently of the opinion that so long as renewable infrastructure and smart grids continue to develop, we should be able to keep pace with the rising demand from electric vehicles.

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But in order to achieve this, the right incentives need to be given. Smart grids will likely only work with differential electricity pricing and feed-in tariffs (payments to supply power to the grid). There need to be measures taken to improve buildings’ energy performance – recall that landlords and house-builders don’t pay for heating bills, so have little incentive to improve energy efficiency. And vehicle owners have to be given an incentive to switch to electric cars, or many will just hang on to their old gas-guzzler.

It is also likely that, in a post-fossil fuel world, we’ll need some form of large-scale energy storage to cope with prolonged outages. Possibly this will take the form of underground storage of hydrogen, or perhaps more pumped hydroelectric storage. Smart grids and building-integrated renewables can reduce the scale of these storage requirements, but the main issue is going to be the time it will take to develop such infrastructure – which means decisions on what sort of future grid we are going to have need to be made sooner rather than later.

My point is, there are solutions to the current energy crisis. And a lot of those involve going after the low-hanging fruit, such as making homes more energy efficient, and diversifying electricity supply and smart grids. But they require a commitment to long-term planning now. We must not repeat the mistake of allowing short-term factors to distract from these goals.

Dr Dylan Ryan is a lecturer in mechanical and energy engineering at Napier University

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