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Handling the net zero pressure

James Kirkwood's picture
Owner kW Energy Consultants

Owner kW Energy Consultants; Experienced energy consultant and project manager of wide-ranging, varied and complex energy efficiency projects; Display Energy Certificate (DEC) assessor...

  • Member since 2020
  • 8 items added with 9,829 views
  • Jul 16, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is still very much gripping the planet (not that those crowding the beaches and bars seem to notice or care) and fears of a second peak and the virus becoming endemic in our society (similar to seasonal flue and the common cold) are taking hold. As terrifying as an endemic virus sounds, our ability to cope with seasonal flu and colds suggests that as a species we will largely be ok, though there is of course a lot of uncertainty and all we can do on a day-to-day basis is follow the guidance (however much we may disagree with certain aspects of it), stay safe, take care and be as patient as we can be – the economy is recovering, we are recovering, we will get through this.

The same can and in the same breath can not be said about the ‘other’ ongoing pandemic that for several decades and arguably a century has largely been ignored, the climate change pandemic. I saw some horrific statistics recently showing Arctic regions reaching 38°C, about 18°C more the average maximum! Yes, in the UK we broke records by going coal-free for 2 months, largely because of Covid-19 restricting our movements and an early summer peak reducing heating demand, which says a lot on its own – but surely that says more about how badly we’ve fared in the past rather than it be a major celebration; a major celebration will be when coal completely gets taken off the grid. We’re on the way, as of 15th July we haven’t used anything since a tiny amount was required on 18th June, which when joint up with the economy starting to show signs of life, people returning to workplaces and travel increasing (along with the unseasonal cool weather we’ve experienced) this is encouraging.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

A word of caution though; whilst coal (and oil which we haven’t mentioned) consumption has decreased, today (15th July) at 12.20pm, over 50% of the UK’s demand was being supplied by natural gas, which whilst cleaner than their solid and liquid counterparts, is still a fossil fuel that once burnt emits a lot of carbon dioxide and other global warming potential products into the atmosphere, directly contributing to global warming and climate change.

Image courtesy of

There is a lot of focus on ‘greening’ the electricity grid with offshore wind turbines and solar photovoltaic farms in particular becoming more and more commonplace; it is working, the carbon factor of the national grid is reducing all the time and on current projections will become greener than natural gas within the next few years (proving a headache to energy managers as the costs are increasing but the carbon savings are improving!).

This is clearly excellent news, though until the electricity grid drops to zero emissions we’re far from being out of the woods yet. Coal and oil (very carbon intensive) are decreasing which is helping the carbon factor of the grid, but natural gas (who’s own carbon factor has been steady for several years) makes up the majority of the grid as previously mentioned – renewables are very ‘peaky’ and until energy storage really kicks off will stay this way (today’s announcement might offer light at the end of the tunnel though), making their input inconsistent for now, whilst close to 20% of our demand is met by nuclear energy…another controversial and tricky topic for another day.

The difficult question is how will we heat our buildings, domestic and commercial, going forward? Cooling demands are increasing but we still get winters in the UK and they are forecast to get more extreme over time, meaning, even with improved insulation and air tightness in our new buildings that there will always be a heating demand. If electricity is getting green, do we just rely on solar panels on the roof, a community wind turbine and a battery? For brand new buildings such conversations can (and should be, but with no regulation in place such conversations often don’t take place…another moan at the weak Government policies for another day) occur, but what about existing buildings?

The fact is that the vast majority of our buildings are heated by gas boilers and will be for some time, so we need to address this. The wet central heating system can be fed by other technologies such as heat pumps, especially in commercial settings, but on a domestic setting this isn’t often feasible or affordable. Until a better option is available, the most cost-effective solution is to retrofit and upgrade the stock we have – ask for expert advice on how to save on your energy bills, improve insulation & air tightness, upgrade inefficient heating, cooling and ventilation equipment, save water, replace lighting and review control systems and settings

So, clearly we’re some way off where we want, where we should and where we need to be. The terms ‘build back better’ and ‘net zero’ are being plastered across front pages and rightly so, but it can seem like an almighty and overwhelming task to achieve carbon neutrality (and beyond) anytime soon, which in turn can dampen enthusiasm, investment and drive. The important thing to do is focus on your own world and curb bad practices, maintain what you’re doing well and if possible improve.

Remember that is always advice and funding out there to get your energy efficiency project off the ground.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 16, 2020

The terms ‘build back better’ and ‘net zero’ are being plastered across front pages and rightly so, but it can seem like an almighty and overwhelming task to achieve carbon neutrality (and beyond) anytime soon, which in turn can dampen enthusiasm, investment and drive.

Your opening comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate change pandemic leads me feeling...less than optimistic. COVID-19 is tangible, in front of our eyes via headlines and constant reminders all day, and can/will directly impact people and their loved ones if they don't trust the experts and do the right thing. Despite all that, the situation is still as bad as it is (in the U.S. at least). If we see that type of behavior for COVID, I worry about widespread action on climate which, as you point out, may suffer from dropped enthusiasm, being further out in time scale and ability to grasp, etc.


The important thing to do is focus on your own world and curb bad practices, maintain what you’re doing well and if possible improve.

But given that, I think it's really driven home the point that individual action is important but systematic action is most important. Yes, I think it's important people make climate responsible decisions with their transportation, their personal energy use, their diets, and so much more. But the mask 'debate' has shown it can be tricky to rely on people to do the right thing if it's perceived to be at all inconvenient. But where governments are mandating masks, participating in shutdowns-- that's where we're seeing the most direct success. I think the climate movement has plenty to learn from there..


Thanks for sharing, James!

James Kirkwood's picture
James Kirkwood on Jul 17, 2020

Thanks for your comments Matt, totally agree that it can be perceived as being pessimistic - I feel with climate change the attitude & motivation has waxed and waned during the Covid-19 pandemic, just as movation towards most topics has (I've definitely had up and down days, especially during the most strict stages of lockdown).

It's interesting to hear the viewpoint from 'across the pond' - things seem to be stabilising in the UK but as ever the minority are ruining and risking lives for the majority, again emphasising the importance of sticking and improving your own world where you can, whether that's climate related or not!

Let's stay positive and optimistic that economies and worldwide health will bounce back and with it we'll build back greener with better energy storage, green hydrogen and improved, stricter regulations to act as a catalyst for change.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 17, 2020

Let's stay positive and optimistic

Good advice, and as long as we have hardworking and dedicated experts working diligently on the climate crisis (such as yourself), there's definitely reason for hope!

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