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Significant changes are coming to the UK heating market

UK housing estate from the air

Household emissions from heating and hot water must reduce by 95% to reach 2050 Net Zero targets. The UK needs a revolution in how we heat our homes in the next few years to achieve the necessary carbon emission savings. 

To tackle climate change, the UK has a legal commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This means that we will need to replace the high carbon fossil fuels currently used to heat our buildings with low carbon fuels and technologies. This will require a significant change to the current UK heating market – a change, for which, to date the majority of the population are largely unaware and unprepared. 

The majority of household CO2 emissions come from heating (including generating hot water). Energy Catapult Analysis shows that in 2017, the average household generated 2745 kg of CO2 emissions from heating, which is around 31% of the total. Until July this year, the UK was aiming to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, which would mean reducing the carbon generated from heating to 692 kg CO2 annually. To reach the Net Zero 2050 target that the UK has now adopted, we need to go even further and reduce heating emissions to 138 kg CO2 per household. – a reduction of 95%.

We cannot reduce carbon emissions from heating sufficiently if we continue to use natural gas or oil to heat our homes. This level of reduction requires a substantial shift in heating technologies towards renewable energy. Home renewable heat energy can come from a wide variety of sources: from solar water heating, or by extracting the latent heat in the soil, outside air or a nearby water source using a heat pump.

Cleaner heating choices

Clean electricity generation also plays an important part in the switch to renewable heat. At a national level electricity from the national grid is being rapidly decarbonised: that means that heat pumps (which rely on electricity to run) become an even greener choice. Homeowners with their own solar PV or wind generation systems can use the power to run direct electric heating or heat pumps using 100% clean electricity.  

A further option for decarbonising heating is to change the gas running through the national gas network, to incorporate higher proportions of biogas or hydrogen. That’s an option favoured by many in the existing gas industry as it will require fewer changes to existing heating systems and gas distribution networks. However, the development of hydrogen production systems in the timescale required is a massive infrastructure challenge in itself.

District heating will be the final component of the heat decarbonisation journey. District heating schemes can connect up properties in dense urban areas through a series of highly insulated pipes. Each scheme will have an energy or heat source, from which heat is distributed throughout the network. There are over 17,000 district heating networks in the UK, one example in London takes excess heat from the underground and uses it to warm homes, another in Birmingham supplies heat to council buildings, a hospital, railway station and Aston University.

Creating a policy framework

woman with her hands on a radiator

It’s not yet clear precisely which of this range of technologies will power our homes across the UK in 2050 and the reality is that there is likely to be a range of different systems, with people and communities making choices dependent on the location, size and dimensions of individual properties. Boris Johnson’s government promised a clearer view on the approach to heat decarbonisation – if it wins the election - in a series of policy documents to be published in 2020. And the Labour party are committed to achieving a net zero carbon target by 2030, which will mean a very rapid roll out of new heat infrastructure.

A recent report from UK think-tank Policy Connect – Uncomfortable Home Truths: why Britain urgently needs a low carbon heat strategy – calls for a bold new strategy in green heat innovation. It recommends the creation of an Olympic-style delivery body to catalyse and coordinate regional innovation and local leadership, tailored to different parts of the UK and the nation’s diverse housing stock.

Creating a policy framework is the starting point. But we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge in communicating this transition to people. The vast majority of installers and heating engineers lack confidence in communicating the detail of low carbon technologies. An October 2019 survey by the Sustainable Energy Association reports that three quarters are not ‘very confident’ in recommending and choosing the best low carbon options to their customers.

This is hardly surprising when coupled with the accompanying statistic that only 11% of installers surveyed reported that their customers frequently asked about low carbon heating, renewable energy, or carbon emissions. A further 69% said that they were either rarely or never asked about this.

Providing advice and support during the heat transition

Given the different heating options likely to be available to people, it’s essential that everyone has access to suitable information and advice to help them choose the system that’s right for them. While the Home Energy Scotland service provides tailored advice and support for Scottish householders, and there are advice lines in Northern Ireland and Wales, there’s currently no advice service available in England, since the UK Government cut funding for it in 2018.

David Weatherall, Energy Saving Trust’s Head of Policy contributed to the policy report, which calls for a roadmap for the heat transition. He commented:

“Good advice is the bedrock of any good transition. Householders will be faced with many new low carbon heating options in the coming years and may sometimes be confronted with complicated choices.  Ensuring these households have access to impartial trusted energy advice will become increasingly important as low carbon heat is rolled out.”

With a general election on the way, we can only hope that the next government will take action on the upcoming heat transition and the provision of suitable advice as a matter of urgency.

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