The trajectory towards a Net Zero Carbon future inevitably involves the phase out of fossil fuels. This poses a significant challenge when it comes to heat, as a substantial proportion of heat in the UK is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. According to Catapult, heat accounts for approximately 37% of UK carbon emissions when including industrial processes, with over 80% of homes and over two million businesses using gas from the grid. In recognition of the need to move away from the use of fossil fuels for heating, the government has announced its ambition to phase out the installation of new gas boilers from 2035.
The University is no exception and the majority of our buildings are currently heated through the use of fossil fuels. Consequently, the de-carbonisation of heat is a critical element of the University’s Net Zero Carbon plan. De-carbonising our heat will not be easy and will take a number of years to achieve, but some steps have already been taken to get this underway, and we are exploring further projects for the future. Effective de-carbonisation of heat is a function of both improved efficiency of heating systems, and moving away from sources of heat that use fossil fuels, to renewable sources. The projects we are planning for the future address both, comprising a mix of short and long term initiatives. Taking steps to enable new systems to operate as efficiently as possible is important, as explained further below.
Pipework Insulation Improvements
Funding from the Salix Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) has enabled us to complete insulation improvements across 1,409m of pipework – that’s almost 1 mile! This included adding or upgrading insulation to pipework, bends, tees, valves and flanges at 26 locations, across all three of our campuses. This project has minimised heat losses from pipework, thereby increasing the energy efficiency of the heating systems, resulting in energy savings of 153,222 kWh per year. This equates to an annual cost saving of £6,547 per year saving, and annual carbon savings of 29.62 tCO2e.
Building Fabric Improvements
Before looking at large scale changes to the overall heating systems and source of heat, we are exploring building fabric improvements. This includes potential projects such as upgrading buildings with single glazing to double glazing (or secondary glazing where more appropriate), improving insulation (often as part of existing projects to upgrade/replace roofs), ensuring robust seals on windows/doors and making use of solar blinds.
These projects are important because they help to reduce heat loss (or in the case of solar blinds, heat gain, in order to help reduce cooling requirements). By reducing heat loss, the heating systems can operate more efficiently. This not only helps to reduce energy use and running costs, but also ensures any new systems are sized according to a reduced heating load which may further reduce costs. Building fabric measures also help to improve thermal comfort in buildings.
A number of possible building fabric improvement projects have been identified across our campuses, and the feasibility of these is being further investigated ahead of applying for funding to support these.
Heat de-carbonisation invariably involves exploring the feasibility of installing heat pumps as other low carbon alternatives available at the current time are either not yet well tested and established, or have other limitations (such as running costs or other environmental impacts). Whilst heat pumps use renewable sources of heat (such as the air, water or the ground), they use electricity to operate so are not Net Zero Carbon unless they are powered with renewable electricity. However, as the UK moves towards a renewable electricity grid, their carbon impact will reduce over time.
Five buildings at the University have already had heat pumps installed – four with air source heat pumps, and one ground source heat pump installed back in 2007, which was one of the first commercial-scale ground source heat pumps in Reading.
In the long term, we anticipate that a mass rollout and retrofit of heat pumps across the University will be required. This may include ground source, water source and air source heat pumps, with the right technologies needing to be identified for each building or group of buildings. Due to the scale of this undertaking, this will be phased over a number of projects. Studies and pilot schemes are already underway and these will inform a more detailed heat de-carbonisation plan for the University, as well as supporting our bid for funding to support the work required. Watch this space as our heat de-carbonisation strategy unfolds over the coming months!