Electrifying Manchester: Time for policy intervention in domestic heating?

From left to right: Jenni Viitatnen, Sarah Davies and Perluigi Mancarella
From left to right: Jenni Viitanen, Sarah Davies and Pierluigi Mancarella

As part of Policy Week at Manchester University, Manchester Energy and Tyndall Manchester hosted a public event to discuss how to improve domestic heating provision in Manchester and reduce energy vulnerability at a time of rising prices and pressing environmental challenges. Jenni Viitanen reports on some of the main discussion points made at this well attended and highly topical event.

The discussion was chaired by Stefan Bouzarovski, and panellists included:

Sarah Davies kicked off the debate by highlighting some of the immediate energy concerns in Greater Manchester. Among the highlights, she mentioned that the carbon emissions from gas-powered heating alone is enough to ‘bust’ GM’s carbon budget in the future – which is the reason why policy intervention is necessary. She also stressed that there are currently over 150,000 households who are in poverty as a result of their heating bills, an area which has significant consequences for health and therefore puts pressure on public agencies. Overall, Sarah stressed that Greater Manchester’s policy interventions, such as the heat pump pilot in partnership with NEDO, are necessary from environmental, social and economic perspective.

Charlie Baker challenged the idea of heat pumps by highlighting the higher-order policy concern of insulation which, in the next 10-15 years, would deliver more carbon savings than heat pumps. Charlie also raised concern about heat pumps which are proven in UK field trials to operate at lower Coefficient of Performance (CoP) than is desirable. The overall message from him was “not yet” to heat pumps, and urged policy intervention to focus on demand reduction first and for the technology to mature and provide a better fit with the UK market.

Pierluigi Mancarella presented his research on energy scenarios resulting from electrifying heat in Manchester. The crux of his research exposed the extent of “demand peaks” created by heat pumps, which currently could not be met by the existing grid supply. Such peaks will also push up energy prices during those peaks significantly, which raise questions about economic viability. Pierluigi’s presentation outlined the innovation challenges ahead in terms of economic modelling and meeting future demand in the energy market, and he finished his presentation with the reassuring note that electrical engineering is working towards solving many of the innovation challenges.

Finally, Jenni Viitanen outlined her case from a social science perspective. Her points related to three interlinked topics. Firstly, Jenni concurred with Charlie in that heat pumps are ill-suited to the UK housing stock, but added that the skills in the supply chain of heat pumps are inadequate at the moment, and will result in ‘hit and miss’ where households are potentially left in a very vulnerable position to trouble shoot ill performing systems at their own cost. Secondly, she argued that “electrification of heating” is a question of an energy transition. One of the more successful international examples comes from Sweden where municipalities led the energy transition to renewable district heating schemes in the 1970s in the wake of the oil crisis. Jenni stressed that, compared with Swedish municipalities who have a strong mandate and powers under the Nordic welfare state system, UK local authorities are uniquely badly positioned to govern energy transitions largely due to the energy market reforms in the 1990s. Finally, Jenni stressed the direction of travel pursued by public policy in encouraging electrification and digitisation of heating (and other utilities) aligns with the ‘smart city’ agenda. In her view, opening up energy data and digital systems to allow for more bottom up innovation and participation in local energy systems is a more socially acceptable way forward. This argument is also taken forward in the FP7 funded IREEN research that Jenni is working on in collaboration with Manchester City Council and other European partners.

The concluding discussion highlighted that the roll-out of smart meters and smart grids is currently designed to empower utility companies to control energy consumption to a greater degree, and does very little to empower households. The technological agenda suffers from a lack of perspective on social or environmental justice, which goes to the core of understanding what energy is for.

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