Earth Notes: UK Home Heating Decarbonisation Seminar Presentation (2023-08)Updated 2023-09-22.
Hi, I'm Damon Hart-Davis, and welcome to Earth Notes' podcast on all things eco and green and efficient @Home!
9th August 2023.
This is the core of my post-grad researcher seminar talk today on my PhD work so far, given in person and over Teams call, brutally trimmed!
[00:31] ... just a little tip from me as I've given lots of pitches and so on. Often while people are faffing around your first or your last slide are left up for a long time, and particularly if you are having a pitch, make sure you put your URL and a strap line and something like the down there because people will remember them and you might even get another investor or another, you know... So put something on your first and last slide that is useful for people to get to you. In this case I'm not selling you anything so you've just got my name on it.
[00:58] So ... what am I working on? Well, I've spent a long time thinking about climate change and what I'm here to do at Surrey is continue what I've been doing for the last 10 years, which is to try to help decarbonise home heating UK dwellings so I'm and in particular retrofit dwellings.
[01:23] So we're not going to build an awful lot of new buildings. We're not knocking many down. I'm also not particularly interested in industry or commercial or anything. There are 29 and a half million households in the UK that need improvements, 20 million of those, for example, at the moment have gas boilers. That's [what] I'm interested in.
[01:50] [...] There are about from a previous estimate I've done which lines up fairly closely with what the Climate Change Committee said in their 6th report, there are about 20 million homes in the UK currently standing, which will still be standing in 2050, which have gas boilers, and pretty well all of those are going have to move to being on heat pumps.
[02:17] It's the preferred way to decarbonise. There are some alternatives, which is for example plain electric resistance heating, electric storage heaters and so on.
[02:27] But we want to use heat pumps because for every unit of electricity you can get 3 units of heat out and cause we don't have infinite space to build our turbines or our solar panels or whatever it is, we should make best use of what we've got, and so a heat pump is the way to do it, if we can.
[02:44] Why am I assuming that running off electricity is a good thing? Because we already have a plan to get  the GB grid to essentially zero by 2035 and it's dropping still very fast. It's about half the carbon intensity it was even a few years ago.
[03:01] Note the distinction, by the way, UK, including Northern Ireland, it [NI] is on the Irish grid and they are quite a long way behind on decarbonisation. But for these purposes, less than 10% of the UK population is in Northern Ireland. So these things still apply in broad terms.
[03:21] So I'm trying to make sure that those heat pump retrofits are cheap and effective and robust and user friendly. I have a horror story of a friend of mine in a newly built social housing 200 yards away from my front door where  the building work was obviously shoddy. Even to my untrained eye, and the places weren't going to be well insulated also and it was proven they have all just been torn down less than 14 years after they went up and they were shoddy. They were all fitted with heat pumps. The users were given no training or explanation. And my friends ended up and this is 30 years ago with a £4000 heating bill, which it took the Secretary of State for Energy, who was our MP, to intervene with Centrica's CEO to get it cancelled.
[04:09] That's not user friendly or robust. Someone ticked a box somewhere — that doesn't work — so it's not just a technology problem.
[04:16] And we shouldn't make the best the enemy of the good, so it might be better to have an 80% solution which works for everyone than a 100% solution which fails badly like that.
[04:27] And I'm not here just to get the letters "Dr" in front of my name.  So it's important that I get  anything useful I find get it out as I go along and not just in the academic community, but for example, I'm talking to two or three of the probably the biggest influencers in the UK heat pump market.
[04:51] At the moment  in fact my whole current piece of work is is based on the single  Web page that one of them wrote, and it's important to get out via non academic publications as well: podcast, trade journals, whatever it takes.
[05:07] So I've been thinking about fixing climate change [since] at least 2007. I can't remember exactly when, but I stuck up my first explicit "how to fix the climate" Web page then, and I have that website now, which is expanded slightly from that to sort of circa 400 pages.
[05:25] I spent the last decade inventing a domestic heating control for the UK market (well, the whole EU market, but launched initially in the UK), brought it to market. That's now been sold on to a third party. I'm pleased to say they have put about 10 times more onto the market last year than we were able to manage while we were doing it. So it's moving in the right direction.
[05:50] I've spent a lot of time, all of my life basically, doing start-ups and consulting. This is the first time I'm turning into something that I might pass as an academic.
[06:01] I currently am for example,  the liaison between all the green and environmental groups and my local council. I don't know how that happened, but there you go.
[06:13] And just [be]cause I finished working on Radbot... the climate is not looking happy, so I want to do whatever I can to continue to fix it, thus this research.
[06:24] Now, Matt suggested I talk about bit about slightly non-academic things. So yes, I'm new to academic research, but I have done quite a lot of what's called industrial research when Innovate UK or BEIS or DESNZ as they are now, pays for it. Lots of innovations, so development, learning, all sorts of things. I ran one of the UK's first Internet service providers when I realised that Internet was gonna be important and it wasn't being done well.
[06:54] Radbot was one of those things ... [I've] done done all sorts of innovative stuff, but I've also done production system delivery started working in the City as IT support, so I've done a lot of crawling under people's desks and fixing computers and taking dirty sandwiches out of their fans and  also one of my previous start-ups was a small e-money issuer. We did the first virtual Visa card in Europe and that was, you know, people were actively trying to break in and steal our money.
[07:26] So you know, also used to doing very practical things like that. And there are a bunch of people who obviously can't stand me having worked with me. But I have a bunch of people who still talk to me. So I have a decent network of contacts. And that's already been helpful here. So, for example, when we were developing Radbot, we tested stuff at the Energy House in Salford, which is a house built inside a lab, which is rather marvellous. And so I did a sanity check on one of the things on my current paper and I dropped him a line and said dear Richard, is this completely potty or not me? So it was fine. It's very good. So that was from a previous life.
[08:10] Now, does that mean I know what I'm doing? No. In fact, I know that I know what I'm doing, but it turns out I've got this far, and I'm still solvent and have some friends left, so apparently that's not the end of the world, and it is important. It is a life skill to know you don't need to know what you're doing all the time.
[08:30] It's OK to flounder, ask for help, pivot. A friend of mine  nominally a mentee of mine, passed back some advice saying, "And also for God's sake, when you know you're doing it wrong, stop. You should not go for the sunk cost fallacy just because you put a lot of effort in. If you're doing the wrong thing, stop doing it now." — and that's an important lesson to learn.
[08:52] So while floundering, however, I attempt to keep decent notes because it turns out that all those failures are interesting points (I hope) for the paper. So "Tried all these approaches and they didn't work," is nearly as good as "And I waved my hands and the perfect answer fell out of my head." So those are just some observations which are easier to feel comfortable about  having done all these things wrong commercially for 30 years.
[09:21] Topics and papers...  So  I'm on a part time deal here, which means I'm here till 2031. And the climate needs a lot of fixing doing. There are a lot of things that need to happen, and I'm focusing on this well both 'narrow' UK domestic space heating only, but also 'broad' — that's nearly 30 million buildings, each of which is its own thing. So as I'm thinking about it, new ideas come to mind, and some of them jump the queue and the one that I'm currently looking at has pushed itself to the head of the queue, but here are three things that I think are important.
[10:10] So I spent 10 years developing a smart, TRV (thermostatic radiator valve). So any of you who have radiators at home for heating and have a little usually white thing on one end of it which you have 1-2-3-4-5 on that and you set your room temperature with that... I did a smarter one of those which saves an extra 12 or 13% energy on top by working out when you're not in the room and dropping the temperature a little bit.
[10:38] So I'm kind of biassed, I think TRVs are useful things, but that's for gas fired systems. And heat pumps are not the same creature. So even if you take out your existing gas boiler and you do an absolute drop in replacement with a high temperature heat pump... do we still want to manage things the way we have before with TRVs? So there's one of the big influencers in heat pumps — our small and kind of immature heat pump industry in the UK — is a chap called Heat Geek (or that's his company, he's called Adam Chapman). And he wrote this page, slightly polemic, saying why we shouldn't have TRVs with heat pumps. And I got into this PhD  partially cause I thought "That's nonsense. I'm going to show him he's wrong."
[11:28] So obviously when I came to test what he said in the page, it turns out he's not wrong, which is slightly embarrassing. Or it's not completely wrong. And it's very interesting — I think it needs some explanation. I think it at least needs some understanding, so that's what I'm working on at the moment. And and if it turns out he was depending on how right he is, if it only affects 1% of people, 1% of the time, maybe we just don't try teaching all homeowners to do different things they've ever done before. But if it turns out that he's right most of the time in most houses, we should be changing building regulations, which currently still require TRVs basically. So that's the first one which I might get out next month.
[12:08] Another hot question there (as it were, appropriately) is... it would clearly be better to improve our very leaky buildings before we put heat pumps in because heat pumps are expensive and it's been relatively cheap to throw in a massively oversized gas boiler. It is very expensive to throw in an oversized heat pump. And, I mean very expensive. You can double the cost of one if you go slightly over in heat demand what you might otherwise need. But in some cases you can't do fabric improvements, you might be in a conservation area, you might have a listed building, it might just be very expensive. A friend of mine with a double fronted Victorian place in Kingston, his initial suggestions to him in pricing have been it would cost him £50,000 to [do] external wall insulation [and] it would cost him 25 grand to buy a heat pump.
[13:03] So should he just buy a slightly bigger heat pump and do fabric insulation later if he can, fabric improvements such as insulation? If you do that, what happens in the shoulder months when heat pump demand goes down? Is your heat pump going to cycle more and more madly so it's terribly inefficient? So, can we decouple heat pumps and fabric improvements, and how should we do it? That's the 2nd paper.
[12:25] And then the third one which is important and this goes back to that horror story I had before... You can't just make replacing boilers a tick-box exercise. We've done almost every UK heating system currently in a home is badly installed, oversized and not understood by its occupants, right? Almost every single heating system in the UK is currently wrong. Maybe we could do better and part of that will be giving more agency control and understanding to the end users. These are people without physics degrees. You know, these are people who don't want to spend all their time understanding their heating but who want to understand the consequence if they turn their heating off overnight to save energy, that they're going to be paying peak-time electricity costs tomorrow, and it's not going to get warm till noon. Some way of illustrating to them the effect of what their behaviour or proposed behaviour or tweaking the system is. "Controls that work" is my summary for that one.
[14:23] So those are three of the current ideas I have.
[14:26] So as I say, the first thing I'm looking at is this puzzler posed by Heat Geek. And he's done a very, very simple model, which I've confirmed with about 10 lines of code. It doesn't even happen at runtime. The compiler's actually resolved that it's all correct, as its arithmetic more or less. And I'm extending that model in a number of ways, he made a couple of small errors in his arithmetic compared to his words, so I've parameterised the model so I can turn on and off the fixes. I can turn off a couple of other things.  His model was a steady state model that fixed external air temperature, so I've allowed [in] the model that you can vary the external air temperature. I've now got hold of every (for about 6 cities around the UK) hourly data for every hour for the last 20 years. So I can go and try these out with actual different geographies and so on. Um and and I've tried it for a year's worth of London and Glasgow.
[Chat message pops up saying "Big data!"]
[12:29] Hey, this is not big data. I used to work in the City. Let me tell you about big data at some point!
[15:42]  The model in Heat Geek's papers is a very, very stylised bungalow. Bungalows aren't a very large chunk of UK heating stock, and it's a slightly weird simplified model. So we were just discussing earlier. I think my next step will be just very slightly generalise that to two storeys. It will then be representative to some degree of detached, which is the second largest part of the GB housing stock, so I think will be more representative.
[16:11] So I'm doing all this in the open, so there's a GitHub there which I published it on and you can see, you know, the work and it is incredibly simple from a programming point of view. I mean, the original thing is, you know, there's far more comments than there is only actually any arithmetic going on. And part of the discussion with Matt this morning was how simple is too simple? I think it's nice that it's simple because you can see there's no hidden surprises, that there does genuinely seem to be an issue here. And nothing is outrageous about this thing. It's just simple. So anyway, picking something of an appropriate level of complexity which shows the issue but is believable is what I need to steer through for the rest of this paper.
There's more on my "Earth Notes" Web site at
- 20M current UK homes need to convert from gas to heat pump to decarbonise by 2050
- I am looking for ways to make those heat pump retrofits cheaper and more effective and robust and user friendly
- I will spread the word as I go, including via trade press and influencers, mass media ...
Motivation and History
- I have been thinking about fixing climate change since at least 2007 (
- I spent the last decade inventing and bringing to market a domestic heating control (Radbot)
- I have spent my life founding start-ups, and consulting
- I work with my local council and environmental groups on climate
- The climate still needs lots of help, thus this research!
Me me me! Imposter Syndrome vs Wisdom?
- I am very new to academic research
- I have done grant-funded "industrial research"
- I have done lots of innovation
- I have done lots of production system delivery and maintenance
- I have a network of contacts
- Though I know that I don't know what I'm doing, that's not new!
- It is OK to flounder, ask for help, and pivot!
- While floundering, I do so professionally with an audit trail and test cases, where possible...
I keep thinking of new topics that jump the queue, but these seem important:
- TRVs and heat pumps — how do they interact, and should we ditch them, keep them or adapt them and how we use them? (An interesting teaser from Heat Geek got me started on this PhD!)
- Heat pumps and fabric improvements — if we cannot do fabric improvements first then what should we do?
- Improving agency and understanding for users of heat pumps to end up with cheaper more comfortable homes — controls that work!
- I am looking at the puzzler posed by a heat pump industry star, Heat Geek, indicating that turning down room temperatures to save energy (eg with TRVs) may end up using more:
- I am currently working to extend this simple model to something like a sample of actual housing stock and representative locations across the UK to see if the effect is (a) real and (b) a big enough issue to change user guidance and even building regulations (eg England's part L):
Matt, name-checked a couple of times, is my primary supervisor.
The discussion afterwards was useful and interesting, and suggested some nuances for investigation!
The seminar started at about , and I was second to speak starting about 40 minutes later.
The talk had a small number of people in attendance in the room, including my supervisor, and a similar number joining over a Teams video call. About 9 to 10 in total including the two speakers.
The transcript above is derived from the Teams automatic transcript, with a fair amount of editing for detail.
Raw transcript and WEBVTT files were captured from Teams also.
I also captured my talk on the Zoom H1n field recorder on the table in front of me, in 16-bit 48ksps stereo. The audio for this episode is derived from the H1n recording, though collapsed to mono and normalised in Audacity with the "Compress dynamics" Nyquist effect, and then loudness normalised to -23 LUFS as usual.
I was not able to extract the Teams audio recording in this case.
Mono is sufficient for this moderate/OK pure voice recording, to save bandwidth.
The intro was recorded at my desk on the Blue Yeti (16-bit 48ksps mono).
All of the audio could have sounded better, but it works. (Count: 1)