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Life Cycle Environmental and Economic Sustainability Assessment of Micro-Generation Technologies in the UK Domestic Sector


PhD Project Details

Project Leader: Professor Adisa Azapagic

Project Duration: September 2009 - September 2012.

Project Overview

This research has assessed the environmental and economic sustainability of domestic micro-generation technologies under UK conditions as both individual technologies and as part of a range of future energy supply scenarios for the domestic sector extending to 2050. A life cycle approach has been used for both environmental and economic assessment considering the relevant sustainability impacts, which include global warming potential, the depletion of fossil fuels, human toxicity and life cycle cost. The micro-generation technologies studied were selected on the basis of their ability to contribute to current and future energy supply and also their suitability under UK conditions. These technologies were micro-wind, solar photovoltaics, micro-combined heat and power, heat pumps and solar thermal water heating. The technologies were compared with one another and with the incumbent technologies, which were grid electricity and natural gas condensing boilers. Three journal papers have been published as a result of this research.

The evaluation of micro-generation technologies on a life cycle basis indicated that despite reducing certain environmental impacts, all technologies increased at least one and as many as eight environmental impacts compared to their current fossil-fuel alternatives. All micro-generation technologies would reduce global warming and fossil fuel depletion compared to conventional technologies, highlighting their potential to contribute to energy policy goals. However, they cannot currently compete with conventional technologies for capital cost, although their life cycle costs – taking into account incentives from schemes such as Feed-in Tariffs – can be competitive. Considering both environmental and economic implications suggested that Stirling engine micro-combined heat and power is one of the most sustainable options for heat and electricity generation. The results also suggested that heat pumps should not be receiving incentives from the Government due to their poor environmental performance.

Four potential future energy supply scenarios for the UK domestic sector were studied extending to 2050. The scenarios varied in terms of the level of effort made to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of the sector. Scenario 1 involved no further implementation of micro-generation beyond 2009, increasing energy demand and a grid electricity dominated by fossil fuels. In contrast, Scenario 4 portrayed a future where there is 1 micro-generation technology per dwelling, a 50% reduction in demand and almost complete decarbonisation of the grid mix. The results indicated that a huge transformation of the sector is required to achieve the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. This would include halving energy demand, almost complete decarbonisation of grid electricity and the installation of a micro-generation unit in every dwelling. To conclude, despite the level of interest micro-generation is currently receiving, this work suggested their usage may not necessarily be as beneficial as some believe. Their use does reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption; however, to have any influence on energy policy goals this use would have to be widespread. Furthermore, reduced emissions will come at the expense of other environmental impacts.

Finally, with a number of the technologies not yet cost competitive – even with incentives – the Government focus on measures to reduce demand and decarbonise the grid may prove to be a better option as this work suggested that energy policy goals could be achieved without high penetration of micro-generation.

This project is completed and the PhD dissertation can be found here.

For More Information

The primary contact for this project is Dr Ben Greening.

All group members involved in this project: