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Are we really aware of the impact heating technologies can have on the environment?

In the recent days the news have all been revolving around what many believe to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control.

The COP26 is the 2021 United Nations climate change conference which for the last 3 decades have been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits. As climate change has become a global priority in recent years, this 26th summit has been raising many expectations, especially about the ability of participants to reach meaningful agreements on how to tackle climate change.

Specifically, about 30,000 people are participating in COP26: Heads of State, United Nations officials, climate experts, activists, environmental organizations and entrepreneurs, with the aim of defining guidelines for common action for all.

Expectations are very high regarding the actions to be taken on the issue of global warming, which seem to be aimed at limiting the increase in temperatures to 1.5°C (instead of 2°C).

Among the various sectors that contribute to the problem, unfortunately also that of Air Conditioning.

As repeatedly emphasized, the environmental impact of HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning), and especially heating systems, can no longer be ignored – as we have seen during the pandemic.

 

Restrictive measures and CO2 emissions decline

 

Since the outbreak of Coronavirus, nearly the entire global population has been affected by some form of containment measures. About 4.2 billion people or 54% of the global population, representing almost 60% of global GDP, have been subject to complete or partial lockdowns due to the COVID-19 emergency. These restrictions have been helping to reduce the spread of the virus but have also had repercussions on the supply and demand of energy.

In fact, activities such as restaurants, shopping malls and factories, closed down to prevent the spread of the virus. And even if this decline is compensated by greater e-business activity as well as a rise in the sales of medical equipment, the restrictions affected the overall supply-side capacity.

Data show that the drastic reduction of the global economic activity and mobility during the first quarter of 2020 pushed down global energy demand by 3.8% compared to the first quarter of 2019.

The decline took place mainly in the power sector as a result of significant reductions in electricity demand (-2.5%). But the reduction of industrial production also had an important impact on coal demand.

Global oil demand was down nearly 5%, due to restrictions on travel and the closing of workplaces and borders, which reduced demand for personal vehicle use, air travel and shipping.

So, the decline in the demand of energy, and specifically in fossil fuels derived energy, has definitely contributed to a decline in CO2 emissions.

 

A complex phenomenon

 

But not all of the declines in demand in the first quarter of 2020 were a result of the response to COVID‑19. The milder than average weather conditions throughout many countries also contributed to pushed down the demand for heating, consequently reducing the use of standard and non-environmentally friendly heating technologies.

The impact of weather was particularly strong in the United States, which experienced an 18% decline in residential and commercial gas consumption. But was also strong also in Europe, where there has been the warmest winter season ever recorded (*).

So, the restrictive measures on social and economic activities imposed by governments across the world in relation to the COVID-19 emergency, have had an important impact on the decline of CO2 emissions in this first quarter of 2020. But average weather conditions have had an impact too. This shows how the decline of CO2 emission is actually a complex phenomenon where heating technologies as well have a very relevant role.

 

Heating technologies in the EU

 

Most of the buildings’ heating system in our cities rely on boilers running on fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil. In fact, as of 2015, approximately 50% of the stock of all EU28 countries contained a high share of gas and oil non-condensing boilers (**). As a result of that, heating and hot water account for a huge percentage of our city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

This is something that affects all of us in the run towards a more sustainable and carbon neutral EU envisioned by the EPBD directive (Energy Performance of Buildings Directive). And in this context, the use of new HVAC technologies can have a very positive impact in decarbonizing the building sector and consequently our cities.

 

Heat Pumps can help reducing CO2 emissions

 

It is no secret that heat pumps are the solution to decarbonizing heating. Heat pumps, for instance, answer to most of the requirements set by EU through regulations such as Ecodesign and EPBD, helping achieving reduction of emission (****). This is specifically the case of Heat Pumps that run on electricity – since electricity can be sourced from renewable energy, and it is much easier and affordable to make electricity green than to make a green fuel (***).

As the name suggests, a Heat Pump transfers heat from one source to another, taking the heat from the air outside, and transferring it into the building at a higher temperature. Since even very cold air contains heat energy, there is a significant amount of heat to be extracted from outdoor air, even during the winter. So, because Heat Pumps move heat rather than generating it, Heat Pump systems consume much less energy than traditional heating systems running on fossil fuels.

Also, studies have shown that the replacement of traditional heating systems with heat pumps, leads to a reduction in the consumption of primary energy, despite the increase in the demand for electricity (*****). Thus, the increase in use of electricity instead of fuels should not be a concern. Of course, the more efficient the Heat Pump, the better. So, it is important to choose technology that can provide the right balance between performance and energy efficiency, in order to both satisfy project needs and generate savings on operation costs.

 

Why Heat Pumps are considered such an efficient technology?

 

Heat pumps are efficient technologies by nature, because they transfer heat more efficiently than traditional methods. In fact, they can generate three to four kilowatts of heat for each unit of energy they consume. This corresponds to a 300% efficiency, while other technologies offer the following efficiency values:

– 90 to 96% for condensing gas/oil boilers

– 70 to 80% for conventional gas/oil boilers

– 35 to 45% for direct electric heating (***)

Also, Heat Pumps differentiate from other heating technologies for having a much higher seasonal efficiency. Seasonal efficiency is important especially during transitional seasons periods, which do not require the same amount of heating required during the winter.

It is common knowledge that HVAC systems spend most of their operating hours at conditions other than design. In fact, looking at a typical heating load profile, it is clear that Heat Pumps encounter many hours of off-design operation. But the fact that these technologies are designed to perform in the most efficient way at part load as well, increases even more their efficiency compared to traditional heating technologies.

 

Conclusions

 

In conclusion, since Heat Pumps burn no fossil fuel, they generate far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional heating options. That makes them a perfect green alternative to heating technologies relying on fossil fuels.

It is important to electrify heating in order to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible. That would eliminate most of the emissions produced by the burning of natural gas, oil, or propane, used in homes and businesses for heating and hot water. On the other hand, though, since electricity would be a primary source of energy for Heat Pumps, they should be very efficient, not only to minimize the environmental impact from energy use, but also to ensure sustainable operations costs for end-users.

 

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