Spotlight on Specialisms.

Are you ready for the new energy world?

BY LAURENCE JOHNSON

There is a rich wealth of knowledge within Hoare Lea, but it’s fair to say many of us often focus on our own area of expertise without any real understanding of what many of our groups actually do. In this series – Spotlight on Specialisms – we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the diverse ways our cost-centres can add value to a project.

In this issue, Laurence Johnson from our Utilities and Energy team writes about the concept of a future run on zero-carbon energy, which is very soon going to become a reality.

Imagine a future, where every aspect of our energy use is electric. No boilers, generators or combustion engines of any kind. Where we all use electricity that comes entirely from zero-carbon sources.

A new zero-carbon energy future

This might seem like science fiction, but it is happening now and is well within our reach.

The way we consume electricity is changing. We’re seeing more efficient heat pumps working better in the cold, whilst cheaper and longer range electric cars are changing how we interact with, value, and rely on electricity.

Even our entire relationship to electricity – the way we generate, transport, store, and pay for it – is shifting. As renewable energy becomes more viable, so too will genuinely clean zero-carbon energy homes. The built environment will need to adapt to reflect this.

However, there are still plenty of challenges associated with renewable energy that need to be overcome. Firstly, renewable generation is typically not ‘on demand’ (i.e. the sun has to be out for your solar panel to generate energy), so something needs to be done to ensure ‘power at the plug’. Secondly, renewables have historically relied on subsidies to be viable, so they’ll need to be commercially independent before they can truly square up to other forms of generation.

The future is electric.

The future is cheaper?

You may be surprised to hear that in response to this second point, renewables are projected to soon become cheaper than nuclear power. Case in point: in 2012, energy from the Hinkley nuclear facility cost £92.50/MWh, whereas an offshore windfarm cost £150/MWh. But the windfarms coming online in 2023 are predicted to be generating energy that costs £57.50/MWh, whereas the energy from Hinkley will continue to rise with inflation and, in 2023, cost upwards of £100/MWh.

When you consider that onshore wind and solar will be even cheaper, it becomes clear that subsidy-free renewable generation is just around the corner.

Electricity already has the potential to seriously reduce the amount of carbon we’re producing, but from a building services point of view, we’re being hampered by out-of-date regulations. If regulations are updated, then – by 2022 – direct electric should be producing 30 percent less carbon than a gas boiler strategy.

Clever use of our network

Now, to address the first issue that I raised about renewable generation: that we currently can’t always get it when we need it. The wind doesn’t always blow when we want to use the washing machine and the sun doesn’t always shine when we need a cup of tea.

There’s another issue (just to make things more complicated); renewables generate a huge excess during summer months when demand is low, placing considerable strain on our networks. This causes overloading and prevents other people from being able to connect.

We need to change the way we use energy, and how we interact with it at home, at work and even out and about. We can’t simply ramp up all the gas turbines to meet peak demand.

One small but important step to addressing this is the roll out of smart meters, which try to put customers in touch with their energy usage and start to bridge the gap between user-need and availability. The internet of things will bring about a more dramatic change, as our various appliances will start ‘talking’ to the grid. For example, your dishwasher may be given a timeframe in which to wash the dishes, but it will only activate when it will have the least strain on the grid.

"Imagine an all-
electric building."

"Our network is under strain;
let's be smart in using it."

Design the future

My advice? Ditch CHP and boilers. In fact, ditch anything that burns stuff. Instead, make it all electric. Install zero-carbon electricity generators where they work best, on top of a hill 100 miles away for example. You could install some batteries locally so you store its equivalent energy as it’s available. Yes, there are losses but if it’s placed well it will get used locally too, not to mention the fact that you will be able to directly account for all the carbon you’re able to offset.

You could go a step further: studies show that people who commute with electric cars only use 20-30 percent of battery capacity. Soon, after work, we could be plugging our cars into our home to use that leftover energy when we need it. Further still, in the next few years, if your home is generating more energy than it needs, it could sell it back to the grid or – even better – back to your employer as you commute.

An automatic community

The key thing is, this would all be happening autonomously, behind the scenes. Suppliers and consumers would be getting the best of both worlds without having to lift a finger.

With this much control over the energy we use, we will all find ourselves playing a part in community energy.

Everything I’ve talked about here is about to become a reality, but we’re designing for buildings that don’t take this into account. Can we continue to justify developments that aren’t designed to be zero-carbon in their energy consumption?