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Blog Post 12 October 2017 Updated 9 November 2020

Navigating a low carbon shift in home heating

With 85% of UK homes currently on the gas network, decarbonising heating will be one of the key sustainability challenges to 2050 – but it’s one that’s very much required if the UK is going to adhere to its carbon targets.

A new report from the Energy Research Partnership, the innovation leaders organisation which Energy Saving Trust is part of, sets out what needs to be done to ensure an effective transition to low-carbon options.

Dominant technology remains uncertain

Changing how we heat our homes is a complicated matter, with no clear ‘winning fuel’ at this point in time and investment required in technologies that are interrelated. For example, hydrogen cannot play a big role without greater roll-out of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

There are other connected factors that will affect take-up of potential options. Electric heating options are dependent not only on technological development but on the carbon intensity of the grid. Local heat networks will only be appropriate in certain geographical circumstances.

With unanswered questions on the future of heating, there are many things that can be tackled now – dubbed ‘no regrets’ options in the report.

Treating energy efficiency as ‘first fuel’

First of these options is to simply reduce demand via energy efficiency. Using less energy in the first instance is the cleanest and cheapest way forward – and the technology is there to do it.

Ambitious new build targets should be at the heart of that. While the construction industry may complain about added costs, the reality is that high energy efficiency builds add only 1.5 per cent to the final sale price; and that’s a figure that could only be set to drop as such measures became the norm.

Incentives to make changes to existing homes that are open to all householders should also be an option back on the table. The Energy Company Obligation (ECO) has been reduced and refocused, and while helping those that are most in need is a good objective, there should be something for everyone.

Hydrogen an option worth exploring

The report calls for the potential of hydrogen replacing natural gas to be fully explored. It needs to be proven safe, and the costs and expertise required need to be established. The H21 project in Leeds is an important test-bed for this. The city is looking to transition to hydrogen by 2030, and indications suggest that if bulk supplies of low-carbon hydrogen can be produced by 2026, 19 cities could be converted by 2050. This accounts for about 35% of housing. Whilst this all sounds very promising it is important to note that hydrogen is still in its infancy. Before hydrogen becomes a serious contender, there remain a lot of issues to resolve around how it would be produced, distributed and used in practice.

It is also highlighted that both public and private investment will be needed to extensively trial new heating options. These will include technologies like hybrid heat pumps, which integrate an air-to-water pump with another heat source, substitute natural gas (SNG), heat storage and new retrofit energy efficiency measures.

2050 energy demand for heat

Figure 2.2 Percentage contribution to heat energy demand in 2050 by different energy sources from page 15 of the ERP report

Sharing the cost of change

It’s a report that pulls no punches when tackling the economics of transition. It’s not going to be cheap, so this makes how the costs of transformation are distributed absolutely crucial. People on low incomes need to be treated fairly, but at the moment, low-carbon incentives focus on ongoing payments rather than up-front costs, which excludes those who don’t have the money to invest in the first place.

There is a clear social justice angle to heating homes, which requires greater cohesion in thinking between this social aspect, fuel poverty and energy efficiency. These are interrelated issues; change has to include everyone. This will likely involve the establishment of a heat delivery body to make sure this is exactly what happens.

An informed public is key

Good advice is the bedrock of any good transition. This one in particular is challenging, as people care about their homes being comfortable and affordable to run, without the dynamics of where exactly their heat is coming from often coming into consideration. But householders will be faced with new options in the coming years, and confronted with sometimes complicated choices, will have to make decisions that work well for them in the long run.

With this mind, targeting people at points in their life when they’re most receptive to messages around energy efficiency and heat – when they’re moving home or making improvements – is the best way to engage.

But early information disseminated widely will be vital if, for example, hydrogen is going to introduced to an area. If this doesn’t happen, people could make high-cost investments in other technologies like heat pumps, with support from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), to then find that a simpler and lower-cost option has been made available.

Beyond boilers

For low-carbon alternatives to today’s natural gas to be introduced, over the next 30 years,16,000 boilers a week need to be converted so they can be used with a new fuel, be that hydrogen, bio-gas or otherwise. Such a scale can be achieved, as proved by the fact that 5,000 boilers a day are replaced in the UK right now. But there will be an increase in the scale of the intervention required in homes, and tradespeople need to have the skills to do it.

A wholesale heating transition in the coming years is as inevitable as it is complicated. It needs a strong narrative and rationale presented, communicated clearly and early, and the infrastructure that’s required fully tested and fit for purpose. With keeping warm at home always the dominant reason for a householder to seek energy advice, getting this transition right is a seriously sensitive matter.

Last updated: 9 November 2020