Increasingly energy companies are looking to whole system approaches that include not just clean electricity but transport and – crucially – heat.
One such project is the Oxford Energy Superhub, a multifaceted project that includes a ‘world first’ grid-scale battery element, high speed EV chargers and hundreds of ground source heat pumps for local homes.
Made up of a consortium of companies, Cornwall based Kensa Contracting is providing the ‘shoebox’ heat pumps for the project. Speaking to Current± recently, the company’s managing director Matthew Trewhella explained the challenges the project sought to tackle.
“The concept goes back to actually some of the criticism that has been laid at the decarbonisation agenda. There are lots of people who say that there is no way you could decarbonise all the heating systems and take all the gas out because the electricity grid would never cope.
“Then they also say, there's no way you could decarbonise transport, people aren't going to give up their diesel and petrol powered cars and go to electric, and if you did both then well, all the wires would just fry and it would be an absolute disaster.
“It's usually people who make that case have got a little bit of a vested interest and you find it's overstated, but quite clearly if we're going to stop burning gas and heat buildings using electrically driven devices, there is going to be more and more electricity that needs to be sent down the wires and the same goes for transport.”
The project is designed to utilise heat pumps to manage grid constraints, using them to absorb excess generation from renewables so that wind or solar does not need to be switched off. This will work together with the battery and the electric vehicles, to create a smarter, more connected local grid, Trewhella continues.
Kensa is the UK's only dedicated ground source heat pump manufacturer, with the technology remaining fairly nascent.
“There is huge variation around the world, within Europe there's even quite big variations,” said Trewhella. “The Scandinavian countries are probably furthest ahead with heat pump deployment… but the UK is pretty much behind all of those I think. Even Lithuania and Poland top us on things like ground source.”
He explained that cheap gas, and the relatively expensive nature of heat pumps have been the biggest factors that have held them back in the UK.
Trewhella continued: “From a carbon point of view, it's very easy to get a 75% saving against gas right back. But you have to have a very well designed and a very well performing system for it to cost the same to run it as gas. It's possible but it is only just possible, it has to be very close.”
But heating is increasingly drawing focus, with Ofgem referring to it as “arguably the biggest challenge that the energy sector faces over the coming decades" in its decarbonisation programme action plan released in February.
Slowly but steadily is seems that there is an increasingly interest in heat pumps according to Trewhella. “More self-builders are choosing to put things like ground source in when that when they're building their properties to begin with. There's a reasonable market in the off gas areas. That's probably growing steadily, but it's not it's not exploding. It's growing 15%-20% a year, which is reasonable and respectable.
“Where we're seeing that growth is particularly in the multiple occupancy building. So high rise flats, housing associations and new build sites, in those areas we're seeing a huge step forward.”
This is helped by the fact that you can influence more homes all in one go, increasing the awareness consumers have going forwards.
In April, Legal & General acquired a 36% share in the ground source heat technology company, allowing it to continue research and development work and to benefit from directly deploying Kensa’s heating systems into the buildings developed by the company.
Additionally, the move brings with it a heightened profile for the company and the technology.
“The fact that they made this announcement and made this investment is hugely beneficial for us in its own right,” added Trewhella.
The investment has come at a challenging time for the UK and the world, and this will crucially help to secure the company against some of the impact of COVID-19.
“It's incredibly reassuring to be part of Legal & General during this crisis,” finished Trewhella. “I'm sure Kensa would have made it through before but it may have put us back three, four or five years in our development. So being part of Legal & General now means we'll probably come through without losing much momentum. If anything, we could be ready to come back better than when we went into the restrictions.”