Grab some easy wins on heat

A huge amount of heat is wasted in the UK and it’s great to see that BEIS has made £18 million in grants available to reduce waste from at least one source – industrial waste heat.  BEIS has offered to provide funding for projects that can help dismantle some of the barriers to using that heat.

I can’t help but feel that there is some other low-hanging fruit that could be tackled with relatively little outlay. My current bugbear? The waste of heat energy from ‘energy from waste’ plants. These plants generate electricity, which is all very well. But in most cases, the heat goes up the chimney. Hardly any pass on the heat they produce to customers – even though, for years, planners have required that they be built ‘heat-ready’ and configured to be able to connect to heat users relatively easily.

This is frustrating. These plants (with apologies to their proud owners) are workhorses, not temperamental thoroughbreds, and they can deliver consistent, high-quality (ie high-temperature) heat day-in, day-out. And they could deliver in bulk – it’s likely at least half of the energy they produce is currently wasted, while the rest is turned into electricity. And although some may be at a distance from potential users, others are adjacent to industrial parks, commercial buildings and even housing.

What would it take to use that heat? No doubt some government cash would be useful, as with industrial waste heat, to iron out technical and other issues. But much could be done with better regulation. In the same way the EfW plants are required to have heat connections, local councils should require developers to use waste heat – (almost) no excuses (That might require their planning department to talk to the waste and resources department – but that’s not a bad idea.). Importantly, local councils should enforce that rule – and Defra should put its weight behind local councils to make sure they can stand firm against pushback from developers.

There is an opportunity to take a step in the next few weeks, when Defra is expected to produces a new white paper on waste and resources. A strategy to realise those long-hoped-for heat systems would surely be a positive move.

It’s also worth remembering that BEIS is currently grappling with the need to decarbonise the entire heat sector and find a replacement for our (fossil) gas method of meeting that need. Many options are on the table, some extremely ambitious, like converting huge swathes of the network to carry hydrogen or biomass, or abandoning gas in some areas entirely in favour of electricity.

What seems most likely is that there will be a patchwork of solutions, determined by local conditions and availability of resources. Again, using those EfW connections ought to be a relatively easy win and one that will, in some areas at least, also get people thinking about where their heat comes from – a conversation BEIS ought to be having in any case, given the dramatic change required in gas network. (That might require BEIS to talk to Defra, but again, that’s not a bad idea.)

With such a mountain to climb in decarbonising heat, and an energy and waste industry in flux, let’s not miss the obvious easier wins. Local authorities, BEIS and Defra should all jump on it.