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Cooling and heating sectors must brace for mutual decarbonisation challenge

A session looking at cooling innovation at the 2019 BESA National Conference has identified fresh legislation and an industry-backed training drive as key factors to expand refrigerant-based systems

The future of the UK cooling sector is inextricably linked with the heating industry and many of the training and environmental challenges faced in the drive to decarbonisation, a panel of industry experts have said during the latest BESA National Conference.

Addressing a need for an increased use of refrigerant-based technologies such as heat pumps was seen as the most likely direction to support a greener electricity network and as such was a key theme of a special session looking at ‘the future of cooling’ held during the event.

Phil Ord, marketing and sales strategy head with Mitsubishi Electric Living Environmental Systems in the UK, highlighted that the pressures to realise national decarbonisation and meeting major targets around greenhouse gas emissions from refrigerant would pose shared problems for HVACR as a whole.

Mr Ord argued that ongoing efforts to decarbonise the electricity grid, supported through initiatives such as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and feed-in tariffs and broader public and private sector investment, would be a key part of revisions of the Building Regulations in 2020. This in turn would have a massive impact on the built environment and innovation.

Both the cooling and heating industry should therefore expect to be much more closely aligned in terms of innovation and ambitions moving forward, he added.

F-Gas implciations

Mr Ord pointed to ambitions to try and push the uptake of heat pumps, which remain at a very low level, despite ambitions for a surge in uptake in the next five years. This would support an end to fossil fuel heating in new homes sought as a key focus of the Future Homes Standard that is currently under consultation.

He said, “A heat pump can cool as well as heat, so if you think of a DX split system or VRF technology, then a heat pump is the same technology that we are talking about. They all have one thing in common and that is that they use refrigerant and that is something coming under scrutiny now.”

The scrutiny in question is the EU F-Gas regulation. Mr Ord said that the phasedown of refrigeration with higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) ratings was about half way through its current aim to push industry towards use of refrigerants with ever lower emissions. This in itself required the introduction of some form of flammability and toxicity to the gas that needed to be accounted for as part of handling and system design.

With the emergence of lower flammability R32 refrigerant on the market, as well as a number of other refrigerant options, there is now a larger number of products available on the market that will be in use at different sites and be provided by different manufacturers.

Mr Ord said, “There will be a whole raft of refrigerants out there and you will be choosing the refrigerant that is right for your building, your client and for your jobs.”

Conversely manufacturers would be looking to select refrigerant on consumer interest and the requirements of regulation to move to lower GWP products.

Closer links

Greame Fox, head of Refcom, shared the view during the session about the much closer links that cooling systems would have with heating innovations and therefore bringing cooling principles increasingly into the building services sector.

Graham Wright of Daikin, the current president of the Heat Pump Association, said that the future of cooling was not necessarily limited to vapour compression technologies, despite their longstanding use in the industry.

He argued that there was increasing potential for a range of different solutions to be developed and brought to the market to address the challenges of decarbonisation and greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving priorities in the sector at present.

Mr Wright cited the recent announcement of eight technologies that will compete for a US$1m Global Cooling Prize as an example of where new approaches may come from.

He said, “The finalists have now been announced and they have all been given US$200,000 to try and commercialise their systems. Some of them are using magnetics, some of them are using vapour compression and some are using some weird approaches.”

“So the future of cooling and heating could be something quite different to where we are now. But when?”

Mr Wright argued that commercialisation of some of the systems could take up to 20 years, based on the significant work required around ensuring any potential replacements are safe, efficient and viable from a cost perspective.

With a shift towards implementing gas with some form of lower or even higher levels of flammability or toxicity, he said members of the Heat Pump Association had already undertaken significant work to ensure vapour compression could meet all these demands.

This work was focused on lower carbon cooling and heating systems that would be supported by an increasingly efficient electricity grid.

Mr Wright said that there was government interest in expanding heat pump use nationally from the relatively low levels of use seen when compared to the majority of UK homes currently heated through gas, especially compared to other European countries.

However, he warned that aspirations for one million heat pumps to be installed annually within 2030 was a significant challenge, with questions over the ability of industry to currently deliver hat number of systems.

He said,” We actually think we can do this. So manufacturers in the Heat Pump Association have created a document, our roadmap as to ho we think we can do that.”

With the roadmap strategy being released this week, the panel was asked by RAC Magazine where the impetus must come from - whether at a private sector or policy level - to begin to ensure the viability of using heat pump technologies to help realise decarbonisation.

Next steps

Mr Wright claimed there were three key challenges that the Heat Pump Association had itself identified to expanding uptake. He notably cited a need to ensure continued work with government.

Mr Wright said, “We need to get the regulatory framework in place so that heat pumps can be dealt with in the same way as boilers basically.”

This framework would need to address some the basic barriers to adoption of such technologies including issues such as permitted development for the appliance, as well as the possibility of mandating a 55 deg C flow temperature in new buildings.

Industry also had a responsibility to try and step up training and ensuring specialists were capable of installing systems and handling refrigerant.

Mr Wright said training was presently being driven by manufacturers wanting to ensure official qualifications are in place for installing their technologies and ensuring overall competence. The panel argued that the shift to ensure greater take-up of heat pump systems would put strain on existing maintenance and repair policy currently offered by manufacturers due to the relatively lower level of UK use.

Mr Wright also noted current aims to over the next year to almost double the current number of 27,000 installations undertaken in 2019.

He added, “If I say to you about 300,000 heat pumps by 2025, the market has grown by 10. If I say a million heat pumps are being installed by 2030, you will have an industry worth £5bn. So if we can’t organise and get this right amount ourselves to do these things no one can.”

“No one is going to give this to us and conversations are going on with government now, where e are talking and other associations are doing the same. The good thing is the Future Homes Standard, clearly indicates that heat pumps are the way to go. So I’m not going to use the word confident, but we are quite happy how things are going.”

 

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