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Open protocols: The UK's pathway to Net Zero

Whilst the image of climate change lends itself to plastic straws and old diesel cars, the carbon emissions that come from keeping our homes warm are often forgotten.

We all want to enjoy the benefits of a safe, warm environment and if your gas boiler breaks down mid-winter, the first port of call is to simply replace it with another. However, following the UK’s commitment to Net Zero by 2050, steps will need to be taken to transition away from high carbon heating systems – and quickly. Low carbon alternatives such as heat pumps are already mature and established and yet uptake in 2018 reached just 27,000. Suffice to say that this isn’t down to the performance of the technology, but that policy hasn’t yet set the right pathway.

It’s fair to say that consumers should be at the heart of the low carbon transition and unless we improve the heat pump proposition for customers, traditional gas boilers will continue to dominate the heating system. With just thirty years to play with in order to achieve Net Zero, that’s not something we can afford to accept. Much more will need to be done to make alternatives, such as heat pumps, more attractive to consumers and there are a range of auxiliary measures and technologies available that policy should encourage to increase their uptake. Smart Controls such as smart thermostats and smart radiator thermostats, for example, can help improve heat pump (or boiler) performance by optimising operation, and decreasing the flow temperature. In alignment with UK climate targets, this results in greater efficiency whilst also achieving lower fuel bills for the consumer. For smart controls to operate optimally, however, open protocols must be applied.

Generally good practice, open protocols have already been introduced in many other sectors to help different technologies “talk” to each other within the same system. This ensures interoperability between technologies, improves performance and increases customer choice and yet despite these benefits, they have not yet been mandated in the heating sector. You wouldn’t buy a smart phone that could only be used on the manufacturers network, for example, because you’re able to enjoy the benefit of a flexible interoperability. We need to learn the lesson from the smart meter roll out where open protocols were not introduced, and we now find ourselves in the regrettable position of having to replace SMETS-1 devices due to lock-in issues. Smart controls should be able to modulate heat pumps (or boilers) to achieve optimal performance, and yet this is a benefit that is not yet enjoyed. This is currently inhibiting consumer choice moving forwards and impeding the performance of the heating systems that have already been deployed.

OpenTherm is a form of communication protocol between smart controls and heating systems that can – and should – be used to modulate temperature flow through a heating system. Already widely used across Europe, it can increase the energy efficiency of heat pumps or boilers whilst maintaining the desired temperature of a home. For the consumer, this ensures that comfort is maximised whilst less heat is expended at the same time. In a recent test performed by Schneider Electric, OpenTherm modulation was shown to achieve a more constant waterflow, lower demand on the heat source and lower deviation from room temperature set point when compared to TPI (on/off modulation). With open protocols shown in this test to reduce fuel consumption by an average of 11.9%, the advantage of mandating them is evident.

When it comes to improving the performance of our heating systems and protecting consumer choice, all at no additional cost, introducing open protocols is a no brainer. However, with some manufacturers looking to protect their market position, it will require an intervention from policy makers to make it happen.

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