Heating Our Homes: Gas Innovation Now And In The Future

By Noel Regan, EU Affairs Director, Eurogas
Autumn 2015

Only one generation ago, heating in my home-place of Ireland meant cutting peat in the bog and drying it under the sun, before transporting it to the shed for storing until wintertime. This "turf" could then be used in an open fire or range, with the temperature "controlled" by simply putting less or more on the fire.

In today's Ireland, as in most of Europe, most people just “flick a switch” for instant heat! The introduction of fuels like natural gas into the heating system has dramatically changed how consumers acquire heat and their comfort level (including better air quality), often in a costcompetitive manner.

From the consumer's point of view, the two experiences above are worlds apart, yet behind the scenes, the same four steps play out. In both cases, one needs access to an energy source, a way to transport and store the energy until needed, a means to convert the stored energy to heat and, finally, the ability to control the temperature.

Physics dictates that these four steps will remain fundamental to home heating. But the need to heat homes while producing less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is expected to drive innovation in all four areas.

The gas industry is continuously exploring how it can contribute to this challenge, while also meeting consumer expectations for affordable heating and high quality customer service. Recent innovations in gas have delivered multiple benefits; a look into the future reveals even more possibilities.

Gas as an energy source
Natural gas provides almost half of home heating in Europe, with 55% of the demand met by supply produced in Europe and Norway. For most Member States in the European Union (EU), having a diverse network of gas suppliers contributes to national energy security. Eurogas firmly believes improved market implementation - supported by cross-border infrastructure and a regional, cooperative approach - offers the most efficient way to enhance supply security.

Renewable gas, in the form of biogas, is starting to contribute to diversity of supply. With 15 billion cubic metres (bcm) produced in 2013, it supplied enough gas to heat the equivalent of approximately 4.5 million households. Continued innovation is expected to improve the means of production and production efficiencies.

Transportation and storage of energy
The ability to deliver gas as needed is very important to satisfy consumer heating demand: a typical northern European household will require over eight times more heat in January than in August. With over 2.2 million kilometres of pipelines, Europe has an extensive network to deliver gas to the home. In addition, some 150 facilities can store approximately 97 bcm of gas, ensuring that about 20% of annual demand can be at hand.

Increasingly, gas is being used with other energy carriers, another innovation that benefits consumers. Power-to-gas (P2G) technology, for example, converts electricity generated by renewables to gas, which can be stored for much longer periods (i.e. seasonally, rather than for a few hours or days). P2G could offer a long-term solution to using intermittent renewable energy for heating homes. Several Eurogas members are investing in P2G and advancing its technological development. For example, a recent installation in Germany features an impressive system efficiency of 86% with heat recovery.

Conversion of energy to heat
The efficiency of heating appliances - that is, the rate at which they transform the energy supply (gas) into the energy service (heat) - influences the cost of heat and the GHG emissions created during conversion, as low efficiency requires more supply to be converted for the desired comfort. Approximately 85% of European households are using old, inefficient boilers.

Switching to efficient, condensing boilers boosts energy efficiency, in some cases by more than 20%. While it requires an upfront investment, replacing old boilers makes financial sense; in most cases, gas bill savings will "pay back" the cost within seven years. Higher efficiency also helps meet national and EU objectives to reduce energy demand and associated emissions.

Gas heat-pumps, which capture renewable heat from the air, ground or groundwater, reach conversion efficiencies of up to 165%. Combined heat and power (CHP) units, which produce both heating and electricity, are now available in smaller units suitable for individual homes.

An emerging trend is to install complete heating and cooling solutions in homes, which allow different energy carriers to work together to meet the consumer’s needs. Such a system might combine, for example, a gas condensing boiler and solar thermal panels, or a hybrid unit of a gas condensing boiler with an electric heat-pump.

Controlling the heat
While each of the above steps show substantial potential to reduce the volume of energy that needs to be generated, stored and converted to deliver heat comfort, innovation in heating control can go a step further. Increasingly, appliances and technologies are being connected in ways that integrate gas into "smart" energy systems. For example, customers can control their home heating remotely, through applications on their smart phones.

A smart gas grid
Considering all these innovations occurred in just one generation, it's safe to assume that more dramatic changes are in store. Eurogas will help ensure that the gas industry continues to evolve to meet both consumer needs and environmental challenges, and to collaborate across energy sectors to create smarter energy systems - as shown in the Eurogas vision of a smart gas grid.