To achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require decarbonisation on a vast scale. Martin Freer is championing the creation of a National Centre for the Decarbonisation of Heat to address this in residential heating
Since the UK’s Climate Change Act became law in 2008, significant efforts have been made to reach the ambitious target of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The heating of homes and buildings accounts for a third of the UK’s carbon emissions, thus one area of intensive research is the reduction of energy consumption at the residential level. This is particularly timely given the current energy and economic crises. Professor Martin Freer, Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute, UK, discusses some of the challenges associated with decarbonising residential heating on a national scale.
Martin’s primary research interests lie in nuclear physics, a passion that was ignited when he was studying at Aston University. Recognising the potential for nuclear energy in achieving net zero, as well as the need to bridge the gap between industry and government, Martin, together with Lord Philip Hunt, undertook a policy commission that led to the establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research in 2010. Newly created educational programmes and degree courses, including a postgraduate course on nuclear waste management, sparked a new age of nuclear energy research.
The UK has some of the worst housing stock in terms of energy efficiency and we are one of the countries that is most reliant on gas for heating
However, it became clear that while nuclear energy is an important component for achieving net zero, the energy sector needs to look beyond nuclear alone. The subsequently established Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) brings together the expertise of more than 200 researchers across science, technology, policy, economics and law, while also partnering with 1,500 researchers from eight universities that comprise the Midlands Energy Research Accelerator (ERA). The overarching aim is to bring together government, industry and higher education to innovate, create and deliver sustainable energy solutions.
Martin emphasises that the biggest challenge we currently face in achieving net zero is not how to decarbonise the electricity grid, but how to decarbonise residential heating. This is an issue that is high on the agenda of the BEI and ERA and which, if achievable, would help reduce both the climatic effects of our emissions and rising expenditure.
“At present, most of our heat comes from gas, which is both high carbon and really expensive. The UK has some of the worst housing stock in terms of energy efficiency and we are one of the countries that is most reliant on gas for heating. With energy prices rocketing, the number of households that will be in fuel poverty is huge.
“We have been trying to support the transition of this sector through a series of policy commissions and developing the concept of a National Centre for the Decarbonisation of Heat (NCDH) to coordinate the delivery of heating solutions. Our target is to start in Birmingham, working with energy companies and the city council to focus on communities across the city with the highest level of challenge in terms of their energy bills and the energy efficiency of their homes.”
With the proviso of successful funding, construction of the NCDH would begin in 2023. The project aims to contribute to the conversion of 25 million homes – almost all of the UK’s housing stock – to low-carbon heating and hopes to embark on heating retrofit programmes in late 2024. Insulation in homes will be upgraded, heating solutions will use electricity to pump heat from the external air or ground into the house, and eventually newer boilers will burn hydrogen gas over methane. Localised heating schemes will also redistribute waste heat from industry to where it is needed most in residential areas.
The cost of decarbonising residential heating is predicted to be an astonishing £500 billion, requiring both government and private-sector backing. Large-scale decarbonisation of homes and offices will also be incredibly complex to coordinate and deliver. For example, to enact the changes will require the training of 100,000 engineers, which the NCDH would help to support. The project will also encourage incentives for innovations by small and medium-sized entrepreneurial companies to aid the transition.
While the NCDH will focus on coordinating the delivery of decarbonised heating, geoscientists have a vital role to play in addressing energy supply and demand, and Martin emphasises that the interdisciplinary nature of the energy sector is paramount to achieving net zero by the middle of the century.
“Geothermal energy is underexploited in terms of the UK’s energy system, be it deep geothermal or heat that can be extracted from redundant coal mines. In the case of mines, this is more or less free heat as the water accumulated in the mines needs to be pumped out and the heat comes with it, so projects are now being developed that exploit this.”
Energy storage, which is essential to mitigate problems relating to the intermittency of renewable energy generation and variable energy demands, is the focus of considerable research efforts at the BEI and ERA. Knowledge of the subsurface is crucial for areas such as hydrogen and compressed air energy storage, as well as for carbon capture.
“At large scale, one of the best places to store hydrogen will be in salt caverns, so assessing the integrity of the caverns will be key. These caverns could also be used for a storage technology called compressed air energy storage. Here, air is compressed into the cavern and then released through a turbine to generate electricity. Similarly, if the UK is to store large amounts of CO2 in carbon capture and storage projects in saline aquifers under the sea, we need to know how long it is going to stay there.”
And, as Martin notes, there is the ongoing issue of how to dispose of the UK’s nuclear waste. The government has now embarked on the siting process to identify a Geological Disposal Facility for radioactive waste in the UK.
A bright future
Despite the scale of the challenge, Martin believes that the strides in innovation required to achieve net zero will encourage a new wave of talent into the energy sector. “There is a colossal amount to do in terms of innovation and delivery to meet net zero. We need the brightest people to get involved, but they must have determination and resilience as there are going to be a number of bumps in the road.”
Martin Freer is a Professor of Nuclear Structure and Reactions at the University of Birmingham, Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute, and Director of the Energy Research Accelerator.
Interview by Hannah Bird, a Doctoral Researcher in Micropalaeontology, Oceanography and Climate Science at the University of Birmingham, and member of the Geoscientist contributors team.