We need to reduce heat consumption in homes, and robotic installation of insulation is just one of the tools we can use to do so
In early May 2019, the UK stopped using coal to generate power for a record-breaking two weeks. This is part of a larger story of dramatic reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the electricity industry in the UK, which are now at 32% of 1990 baseline emissions level according to a report released by the Committee on Climate Change in July. However, the same report has more sobering statistics about the UK’s relationship to fossil fuels within the building and transport sectors.
In buildings this relates to the natural gas we use primarily for heating. There are about 25 million homes in the UK and only 30% achieve an energy performance certificate greater than C. Reducing heat consumption is vital to both reducing fuel poverty and the UK’s commitment to decarbonisation. It’s also extremely challenging. The number of houses where energy efficiency measures have been implemented has been consistently a fraction of the government’s targets.
Digital technologies might allow us to increase the rate at which we improve the performance of our homes, in particular, as the cost of sensor technology and robotics reduces.
The key step in reducing heating demand is generally accepted to be improving building fabric. The company Q-bot has developed a robot which can crawl under suspended timber floors and apply insulation to reduce heat loss and improve air tightness to reduce cold draughts. The robot can also be used to survey buildings and source issues that affect energy consumption.
Identifying the sources of energy loss is key for the retrofit of building fabric. Thermal imaging technology is much cheaper now, which has allowed the Cold Homes Energy Efficiency Survey Experts (CHEESE) project in Bristol to develop a system for effectively surveying homes and identifying issues for owners to address. CHEESE is a community interest company whose intention is that the model it has developed can be replicated in communities around the country. This type of massive-small thinking, an accumulation of many small actions, is vital in reducing home energy consumption.
Heating controls are another vital issue. Central heating systems are generally controlled by the thermostat in one room. When the heating system is on, all rooms are heated irrespective of whether they are occupied or not. Atamate, an Oxford-based controls start-up, has developed an internet of things (IoT)-based infrastructure to allow independent control of heating devices in the home based on sensors in every room.
Completely decarbonising heating in the majority of homes will mean a switch to electricity-based heating, but the energy network is not designed to meet the capacity required. Using intelligent technology to control heating systems so that our houses become thermal stores and use electricity for heating at times that do not stress the network will be hugely important.
Dan Cash is a building services engineer and senior lecturer at the University of the West of England