Paul Burnett, head of decarbonisation and energy strategy, Johnson Controls UK&I looks at the future of heat pumps.

Net Zero goals, energy efficiency, long term energy security and unleashing economic opportunity are not standalone goals. They’re all highly interlinked and part of a unified drive to make our infrastructure fighting fit for a sustainable and profitable future. That’s the message that’s increasingly coming into focus. As businesses and governments continue to recognise the opportunities in the green technology sector, initiatives for ramping up the adoption of green technologies and cutting reliance on fossil fuels are increasing.

Against a backdrop of spiralling energy costs and the need to show decisive leadership, practical clean and efficient energy measures have come into the spotlight like never before. The case for sustainable tech is loud and clear. Yet, questions persist around which tools are the most practical, cost effective and within easy grasp.

A revolution is on the cards

Although many don’t know where to start when it comes to devising sustainable building strategies, it’s worth taking the time to understand the full range of green tech options available. In a world where, according to the World Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for almost 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and the IEA finds they consume at least 30 per cent of energy globally, discussing the solutions and establishing a pathway forward is imperative.

The UK’s built environment may well be on the cusp of a major revolution. However, the relative newness of these technologies, paired with an ever-expanding green skills gap, has led to a lack of education on the genuine commercial benefits offered by different solutions. So, how do businesses understand which technologies will truly deliver return on investment (ROI)?

Are there any holy grails?

Heat pumps have long been heralded as the holy grail in energy efficient solutions. Taking a quick look at the figures makes it clear to see why the tech is becoming an obvious CO2 cutting choice. The Carbon Trust found that heat pumps have the potential to deliver CO2 savings of up to 70% compared to conventional electric heating, and up to 65% compared to an A-rated gas boiler. They are clearly a smart investment but should be considered alongside the whole spectrum of green technologies available. To capitalise on the opportunity offered by new solutions – both commercially and sustainably – any gameplan for decarbonisation must be mapped out carefully. We need an approach that is individualised, taking into consideration the unique challenges of each and every building and this includes its size, day-to-day functions, the needs of its occupants but also the overall mission and goals of the business.

A hybrid future

An unheralded success of previous investment into heat pumps has been the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS). Thanks to this initiative, one borough in London was able to invest into air source heatpumps, seeing a 50% reduction in carbon emissions across its schools and public buildings as a result. Without such investment, legacy infrastructure and older gas heating models across the built environment would have made meeting net zero goals a considerable challenge.

Uptake in the private sector market could prove slower. The National Infrastructure Commission recently found that around eight million buildings will need to switch from gas boilers to cleaner alternatives by 2035 to meet the UK's 2050 net zero target. However, encouraging buy-in on a wider scale will be tricky given that gas is significantly cheaper than electricity at present.

Financial incentives and alternative finance models are going to be increasingly important in order for many businesses to meet ESG and global climate targets. Heat pumps might be the right choice to cut costs and emissions across specific buildings, but a ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t realistic.

Facilities managers need to look at the wider technologies and services on offer, such as hybrid systems - and ensure that visibility is inherent with any system that is deployed. When energy use is monitored in real-time, identifying areas for cost reduction becomes much more manageable.

Where heat pumps fit in

Thanks to the rapid evolution of green tech, heat pumps can now function at higher temperatures. This means they are a viable option for venues like hotels, hospitals, and leisure centres where there is a high demand for hot water at peak times – negating the need to use a gas boiler. The challenge comes in choosing which HP model is right for your business. The decision is informed by a myriad of factors - overall economic case, operator needs, health, safety and environmental (HSE) requirements and external factors such as weather. In some cases, it might even be necessary to redesign mechanical building services to enable lower supply temperatures and invest into training to develop professionals who are equipped to maintain new systems.

It’s important that businesses work with a partner who can offer recommendations on the portfolio of solutions available, effectively designing and installing solutions based on the business and building needs. The optimum solution is the one that provides the highest value in terms of cost and efficiency or return on investment (ROI), as well as providing an end-to-end consultancy and service. From initial inception, all the way through to maintenance once installed. Any good solutions provider will be able to support businesses on their efficiency journeys.

A better future

Heat pumps are not an all-encompassing solution. Businesses need to utilise this technology in conjunction with other systems to bring about better outcomes.

As external temperatures and weather patterns become more unpredictable, wasted energy can be reused in a building by integrating both heat pumps and chiller systems. When there is a demand for heating or hot water, and cooling at the same time, the heat emitted from the cooling process can be extracted and reused for the heating process resulting in additional energy savings. This design is particularly useful for buildings that lack the space to install large scale heat pump and chiller systems.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) models will be an important area for investment now and far into the future. When utilising a hybrid systems, or monitoring energy efficiency across entire estates, collecting and analysing data becomes incredibly complex. AI and ML facilitate true interconnectivity across buildings and update facility managers in real-time on the ‘health’ of the building, as well as making recommendations to save on costs and energy emissions.

Using model predictive control, AI and ML can paint a picture of every possible scenario utilising a building’s given data set. In this way, facilities managers are empowered with real-time insights and can understand the actual energy conversion rate for each element of the building.

AI constantly evolves as a wealth of information is fed in. Over time, it is able to identify any constraints or anomalies, meaning managers can accurately use the data from the platform to preview optimum operating point. This is transformative because businesses can then understand exactly what improvements (and budget) will need to be implemented to deliver the energy in the most efficient way.

Collaboration is key

There’s much to be optimistic about when we consider the success of previous public sector heat pump schemes. With continued investment and buy-in to a wide range of green technologies, we can expand the scale and speed of development, driving up commercial and sustainable benefits in tandem. Heat pumps will be the right solution for some businesses to improve efficiency, drive down costs, and remain on track for carbon neutrality. But to make operations truly future fit and cost-efficient, we need to continually move towards better technologies, deployments, and set points to achieve improved energy efficiency.

Buildings can be our fastest and most significant sustainability win provided the right technology is deployed when and where it is needed the most. Tackling challenges, driving down costs and building improvements into an entire operation is at its heart an exercise in collaboration. By choosing a reputable partner to work with, businesses can implement systems across a whole suite of different buildings with different needs, including university campuses and hospitals. Despite the challenges we have an urgent priority to set a new standard through people, technology, and processes. Let’s make sure we don’t let the potential slip away.