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It's time to focus on renewables for heat

A remarkable year for renewable energy

2015 signalled a promising shift in investment and production towards renewable energy. This was the first year that the majority of new electricity generation under construction was from renewables; that a new record for renewable investment was set; and that the leading source of electricity in the EU was from clean sources. Companies are pledging to be 100% renewable and a solar power plant has been developed that can run overnight.

The Paris Agreement was undoubtedly a catalyst, as evidenced by the investments announced during the COP21 talks. To name a few, this included the International Agency for Solar Technologies, a project led by India representing 120 countries pledged to invest $20 billion in solar by 2020; the Breakthrough Energy coalition, indicating more than 20 billionaires including Gates and Zuckerberg also committing $20 billion to clean energy technologies by 2020; and Dubai’s $27 billion to make solar panels mandatory on all their rooftops by 2030.

These are indeed exciting achievements that demonstrate that renewable technologies are now proven to be good investments and competitive with fossil fuel generation. Missing from these triumphs though is a distinction between types of energy and all these examples highlight that electricity is the priority.

Similarly, of the $329 billion invested in global clean energy in 2015, 56 per cent went to solar technologies and 38 per cent to wind. Even though it is exciting that 173 countries have set renewable energy targets, only 45 have targets for renewable heating.

Renewable electricity is not the whole story

It is becoming widely recognised that clean energy has a ‘bright future’. You may be pleasantly surprised to hear that about a fifth of energy consumption worldwide was from renewable sources in 2014. But almost half of this was from traditional biomass, which generally refers to the burning of wood or animal dung on open fires and low-efficiency stoves. While 40 per cent of the world’s population still relies on this biomass, this is not seen as a sustainable, nor desirable, form of heating or cooking, because it has severe implications for health as a result of indoor air pollution and is an indicator of social inequality.

Setting this unsustainable form of biomass aside leaves roughly a tenth of global energy consumption from modern renewable sources.

By energy type, renewables make up 25 per cent of electricity generation and 8 per cent of heating worldwide. But considering that heating is the majority of consumption, this actually means that about 5 per cent of all energy consumption is from renewable electricity sources and 4 per cent is from modern renewable heating.

Since heating is the main reason for consumption in almost every country, the shift towards renewables in this sector has a major impact and it cannot continue to be overlooked in decarbonisation strategies. Heating accounts for over half of energy consumption and a third of carbon emissions worldwide. In the UK, we may be obsessed with ‘keeping the lights on’ and think access to the Internet is necessary for a basic standard of living, but having a warm and dry shelter has been a fundamental concern for much longer and still is for much of the globe’s population.

Admittedly, the heating sector offers particular challenges for policy makers.

Heat is much less amenable to measurement and regulation since it is produced in millions of separate installations at widely varying sizes, from several different fuels, and at different temperatures. Heat metering thus is uncommon, making the development of renewable heating policies, as well as the assessment of their effectiveness, much more complex and difficult.

Energy-efficient houses have a considerably lower demand for space heating that can be met by smaller-scale, low-temperature heat installations. This creates opportunities for renewable energy sources such as heat pumps, but also means that emphasise on renewable heating technologies may be set aside in order to first improve efficiency of buildings. 

Finally, the potential for electrification of heat and transport is often justification for the focus on renewable electricity. However, it is hard to imagine an entirely decarbonised electricity supply, so this should not distract from investing in renewable heating technologies as well.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although this has been a remarkable year for renewables, heat is deserving of greater policy attention as it still makes up the majority of energy consumption. Our single-minded focus on electricity, an important step though insufficient on its own, illustrates the increasing potential for renewable technologies to surpass and replace the use of fossil fuels. Let’s use this evidence of the advances of renewable technologies to address a more worthy challenge: decarbonising our heating supply.

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