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Waste heat from electricity production could be used to heat our homes and business

Published: 
5 June 2009

The UK could save 10m tonnes of carbon dioxide every year if the waste heat from some of the country's biggest power stations was diverted to warm homes and offices, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Southampton and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

Currently, heat production accounts for almost half (49 per cent) of all primary energy consumed in the UK, far more than in the production of electricity or that used in the transport sector. But coal and nuclear plants are only around 35 per cent efficient, with most of the heat going to waste either through cooling towers or into the sea.

The report, based on new research undertaken by the University of Southampton Sustainable Energy Research Group within the School of Civil Engineering, states that the use of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology would allow the capture and re-use of waste heat produced in the electricity generation process, cutting energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Member of ICE’s Energy Panel, Dr Keith Tovey, said: “The truth is, that if half of the heat lost during electricity production could be captured it would meet 25 per cent of the UK’s heat demand, dramatically reducing energy consumption, cutting costs and carbon emissions. Whilst this level of capture and re-use is not possible under the current organisation of the sector – and there are technical difficulties that need to be addressed – there are immediate opportunities for recycling and re-use, particularly at a local level that could have a marked impact.

“What we need to do is look closely at introducing district heating networks in areas surrounding viable existing power stations in the UK and ensure we assess potential heat capture possibilities for any new facilities.

“In the longer term we need to consider the potentially huge benefits that decentralised CHP could bring to the UK. With the current generation of thermal power stations coming to the end of their lifespan, there is a real opportunity to vastly improve the efficiency of our energy sector and drastically lower its carbon footprint.”

Dr Patrick James of the University of Southampton’s Sustainability Energy Research Group adds: “For the consumer such a scheme would remove the worry of the capital cost of replacing boilers in the home. In new developments, such as the Government's proposed ecotowns, decentralised schemes could see plants run on biomass and producing electricity and heat to meet low carbon commitments.”

The report explains that heat recovery from existing centralised power stations could meet 5 per cent of the UK’s current heating demand by and cut CO2 emissions by 10 million tonnes by 2020. This would largely be achieved through the introduction of CHP and district heating networks at specific locations, where there is a significant population within a 10km radius of a viable power station, such as those at Drax, Ferrybridge and Eggborough.

According to the report, by far the most efficient method of heat capture is decentralised CHP and district heating, of the sort used successfully in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe where smaller power stations are located close to centre of population. ICE urges investigation into how a similar approach could work in the UK. In addition ICE would continue to encourage institution scale CHP schemes such as in hospitals and universities.

The report, Why Waste Heat?, is the second in a series of energy briefing papers produced by the ICE, intended to provoke debate and question current thinking. It is based on research carried out by Professor Bakr Bahaj at the University of Southampton. The full report and research can be downloaded at: www.ice.org.uk

Notes for editors

  • The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was founded in 1818 to ensure professionalism in civil engineering. It represents 80,000 qualified and student civil engineers in the UK and across the globe. The ICE has long worked with the government of the day to help it to achieve its objectives, and has worked with industry to ensure that construction and civil engineering remain major contributors to the UK economy and UK exports.
  • At the University of Southampton, approximately half of the campuses electricity and heat demand is delivered by two 1400kW generators resulting in a carbon saving of 2,000,000kg of CO2 per year. Southampton as a whole boasts a number of similar schemes and it is hoped that the eventual linking together of these will result in the first UK city to make heat available to all of its population from zero carbon and waste heat from electricity production.
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