The Transition to Decarbonised Heating

UK Heating Carbon Emissions

Heating is the UK’s number one source of carbon emissions, producing about 1/3 of the UK’s total. This includes the heating of properties, hot water, cooking/catering and industrial heating processes.

The UK and EU have the target of having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Everything – buildings, transport, industry – must have zero aggregate carbon emissions by then.

Currently, only 5% of the energy used to heat homes is from low carbon sources – this must improve.

Reduction of Gas Central Heating

The burning of fossil fuels (e.g. natural gas) to heat buildings is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas production. Gas central heating is used by 80% of domestic homes in the UK. To reduce this percentage, in 2019, the UK government announced their plans to ban all gas boilers and hobs in all newly built homes by 2025.

Instead, homes can be heated using green electricity e.g. powering heat pumps or in district heating schemes. This is easier and less expensive to do in new-builds because installations do not involve removing an existing heating system.

It is also predicted that the government will ban gas boilers from ALL homes in the UK by 2050. This will be confirmed in a white paper, published later this year, that will lay down the roadmap for achieving carbon neutrality.

There are some concerns that banning domestic gas boilers risks forcing millions of UK citizens into fuel poverty. It is currently relatively cheap to heat your home with gas. If lower-income residents are made to switch to a decarbonised alternative, the cost of installation and energy tariffs may be too great for them to afford on their own.

The government’s white paper will clarify whether they intend to cover the cost of widespread heating decarbonisation: it is clear that for widespread adoption and success, it needs to be affordable and practical to the homeowner.

Difficulties of Decarbonising Heat

Although the technology for upgrading properties to be carbon neutral exists, there are several reasons why it is not always easy:

  • Low energy efficiency – Around 2/3 of UK households suffer from either damp or drafts, wasting energy and reducing resident comfort.
  • Scope of the project – The UK has ~25 million homes and only ~5% currently have low carbon heating. This is a huge task requiring investment in both equipment and qualified engineers. With the target year of 2050, this task is similar to the 1970s switch to central heating which took 35 years to increase adoption in homes from 30% to 95%.
  • Varied building types – The UK has an incredibly varied range of building types and identifying the best method for reducing their environmental impact can be difficult. ThermaFY can be used to assess the energy efficiency of a property to decide which ones are worst, requiring a completely new system, and ones that only require a cost-effective improvement in heating efficiency.
  • Incentivise people – Homeowners are reluctant to switch away from their gas central heating if eco-friendly solutions are too expensive. The recent Budget from the UK government highlights how it will incentivise people to decarbonise their heating using a Green Gas Levy and a Low Carbon Heat Support Scheme.

It is also important that the government regulates energy suppliers to prevent them from keeping gas at a low price and ramping up electricity charges. A worrying example of why this is important is the situation near Falkirk reported on here. The Falkirk Council installed eco-friendly boilers in 900 council homes, promising cost savings of up to 40%. However, once installed, the energy supplier more than doubled the residents’ energy bills without warning, resulting in stark fuel poverty.

What’s Next?

We are currently in some troubling times as a global society but it is important that we do not our halt our progress. The following steps offer a guide on how the UK can make its buildings carbon neutral by 2050:

  • Invest in technicians – For every 100 gas engineers in the UK there are less than 2 that deal with low carbon solutions. Councils should invest in upskilling heating and cooling technicians/installers.
  • Local energy planning – Low carbon energy solutions vary greatly depending on local conditions, resources and building stock. New technology and data analysis should be used to plan the best solution for an area.
  • District heating schemes – Investment in district energy and heating companies for more innovation and early deployment.
  • New building efficiency ratings – To measure our decarbonisation progress, new carbon performance testing should be introduced in all buildings. The current Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating system should be replaced by a more accurate certification that uses real-world, verifiable data e.g. the ThermaFY Heating Efficiency Software.
  • Low carbon equals lower bills – Low carbon solutions must become cheaper to become more mainstream e.g. energy suppliers reward consumers with lower emissions.
  • Helping with installations – Schemes to assist with the upfront cost of installing low carbon solutions, increasing adoption. Alternatively, bundle installation costs in a ‘heat as a service‘ subscription (see next week’s blog).
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