ESB’s eHeat Manager Brian Montayne talks about energy targets in the built environment, the shift towards heat pump technology and the push to do more, as the energy company continues to lead the transition to a low-carbon future.
Along with transport, industry and agriculture, the energy efficiency of the built environment is one of the great challenges Ireland faces in trying to reduce its carbon emissions.
When it comes to how changes in our housing stock and built environment can reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, ESB’s eHeat Manager Brian Montayne is something of an evangelist. But he not only talks the talk. Four years ago, he revamped his own home to make it warmer, drier, more airtight and more energy efficient. And, he replaced his gas boiler with a heat pump.
Heat pumps, also known as air or ground source heat pumps, work by extracting heat from the air or the ground outside your home and use it to heat water for use in the home and in radiators or underfloor heating systems.
As heat pumps are powered by electricity and the amount of energy required is small compared to the energy it extracts, they are much more energy efficient than conventional heating systems.
“Improving the energy efficiency of your home is the first step,” explains Brian. “Then, what’s the most carbon intensive appliance in your house? Fossil fuel boilers, as they currently exist, are extremely carbon intensive compared to the alternative, which would be a heat pump.”
The transition to Renewable Energy
With Ireland moving progressively towards having a significant proportion of its electricity being generated from renewables, it makes sense to use home heating appliances that run on electricity rather than fossil fuels such as gas or oil, he says.
“The other advantage of a heat pump over fossil fuels is that you are not burning or combusting at the point of use,” Brian explains. “Rather with electric heating you are taking advantage of our increasingly abundant renewable resources and limiting the emissions generated within the home.”
Brian concedes that there are challenges to moving homeowners towards embracing low carbon heating technologies such as heat pumps. He says affordable finance is one area to be worked on. However, awareness is another significant issue. Whereas encouraging motorists to buy electric cars has caught the public imagination, changing attitudes to traditional fossil fuel heating systems is a more difficult sell.
“How exciting is heating!” he laughs. “Every few days people inject fuel into their car. They experience the emissions impact of cars on a daily basis. They might therefore buy an electric car. This is the ‘right’ thing to do. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when it comes to heating appliances. But more people are embracing and enjoying the benefits of heat pumps so we are making steady progress."
Housing stock issues and opportunities
Another challenge is Ireland’s existing housing stock. “We have an existing housing stock of 1.6 million and about 90% of those homes are well below acceptable energy efficiency standards. Effectively, our existing housing stock is inefficient and is leaking heat as things are. Homes need to be at a certain efficiency standard for a heat pump to work effectively.”
Nevertheless, Brian says if somebody is retrofitting a home, they should consider using a heat pump to heat the house even if the heat pump costs more up-front than a traditional gas or oil boiler. In the long run, it will result in cost savings and will ultimately pay for itself.
“If you are doing a retrofit to a home, there is often a focus on the cost which is understandable…but in making the decision on which heating appliance to install homeowners need to consider that if the home is over 30 years old, the heating distribution system in that dwelling – the radiators, the piping – will all need to be changed anyway.
Homeowners who do adopt the low carbon alternative can avail of grants to largely offset the incremental cost. And there is the added bonus that heat pumps are cheaper to run and have lower emissions.
“So, you get the house, insulate it, you provide an appropriate level of airtightness, sealing windows and insulating the attic – simple things to make sure you are not losing heat that you are generating. Then you take your fossil fuel heating system and replace it with a low carbon appliance such as a heat pump. That way you can reduce carbon intensity of the home by anything up to 60%,” explains Brian.
Some 50% of new homes have had heat pumps fitted so far this year. “In new builds, we are making very positive progress,” Brian says. However, he points to the other 50% and says that in relation to our carbon emissions targets, it is a mistake to fit new homes with traditional fossil fuel heating systems.
“We are continuing to install fossil fuel systems into our new homes – even though we know we have a major emissions reduction target to achieve by 2050,” he says. “The analogy is – you are pouring more water into an overflowing bath. We’ve a bath full of CO2 and we are pouring more CO2 into the system. In new homes, there’s no reason why we can’t use low-carbon heating, specifically heat pumps, from day one.
New building regulations means that the high Building Energy Rating (BER) in new homes makes them ideal for heat pumps, and there are other benefits.
“Everyone needs an electricity connection to their house, so we’re saying you can avoid another utility connection (such as gas) to your home by using electricity as your heating fuel, which does have cost benefits,” he explains.
On top of that there is a saving on running costs. ESB’s retail arm – Electric Ireland - has introduced an All Electric Price Plan for homes that use electricity for everything from lighting and cooking to heating and hot water. If you use an electric heat pump, Electric Ireland offers additional savings to ensure that your environmentally friendly home is also a cost-efficient home.