In a country with 68% of homes heated by oil boilers, and a huge recent renewable heat scandal, what’s the best way forward to decarbonise heat?
Northern Ireland has published a consultation on its new Energy Strategy, considering many aspects of the journey to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. A key issue for the consultation is the transition to renewable heat.
2019 was the year the UK set Net Zero Carbon targets. UK Government passed into law a UK-wide target for the country to meet net zero by 2050. Wales and Scottish Government have also set programmes aligning with – and in Scotland’s case – going beyond the UK Government target.
The exception has been Northern Ireland. With no government in place from 2017 to January 2020 as a result of political disagreements, the political structures just weren’t there for the country to begin identifying its programmes to meet net zero.
So it’s good news that a Northern Ireland devolved government is now once again in place and that the Department for the Economy has published a call for evidence on its draft Energy Strategy. This marks a significant step forward in Northern Ireland’s decarbonisation journey.
Key elements of the strategy focus on decarbonising heat. Decarbonising heat in buildings will be challenging across the UK, but those challenges are significantly different in Northern Ireland.
Heat accounts for around half of total energy consumption in Northern Ireland and just over half of household energy bills on average are spent on heating. The large majority of households heat their homes with oil. The country has historically had the highest rates of fuel poverty in the UK because of the high cost of oil as a heating fuel. As oil prices have fallen in recent years, fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is at a more comparable level to the rest of the UK but the problem of extreme price volatility for low income customers remains.
Energy Saving Trust manages the delivery of the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme – NISEP. Similar to ECO in Great Britain, NISEP funds for energy efficiency schemes through a charge applied to every unit of electricity.
Energy Saving Trust is still developing views on the future for renewable heat in Northern Ireland in the light of Net Zero and the current Energy Strategy consultation: we would encourage other organisations focused on heat, across the UK, to engage in this critical debate.
Our current thinking is:
The challenges associated with the decarbonisation of heat in the housing sector faced in Northern Ireland are arguably greater than those faced in the rest of the UK because of:
- The large number of Northern Ireland’s homes that need to switch away from oil heating – because it is a higher carbon option than most other heating options and its price can often be volatile – 68% of homes in NI are currently heated by oil. (as compared to fewer than 10% in England and Scotland).
- The current fragile and limited status of the supply chain for heat pumps – Northern Ireland is a small market and suppliers have tended to come from Ireland and Scotland. There have been stories of poorly installed and poorly operating systems.
- Trust and credibility of renewable heating systems has been further damaged by the scandal over government misspending on the Renewable Heat Incentive support programme, which was delivered differently in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.
In other countries of the UK we have been urging governments to support off-gas grid homes to switch to heat pumps and biomass heating systems, alongside energy efficiency improvements. However, given the huge numbers of homes involved, pathways suitable for the rest of the GB are unlikely, in the short to medium term at least, to be suitable for NI.
Intermediate steps therefore need to be taken to make Northern Irish homes “renewable heat ready” with a large scale roll-out planned from the mid to late 2020s.
Deeper energy efficiency retrofit
One potential pathway that we believe would merit further analysis would involve deeper energy efficiency retrofit than that planned in the rest of the UK.
Energy efficiency is a no regrets option for renewable heat and in particular will ensure that homes are suitable for heat pumps in the future. In the near term, for homes with no existing gas connection, such an approach may allow for the option of replacing existing oil boilers with smaller oil boilers (due to reduced heating loads associated with very energy efficient properties, correct sizing and weather and load compensators) or replacing existing oil boilers with hybrid oil heat pumps or a combination of both.
Currently Northern Ireland continues to invest in expanding its gas grid as a way of delivering more affordable and somewhat lower carbon heat to households. As a result, approximately 200,000 homes, mostly oil heated now have an available gas connection, but have not yet taken advantage of it. This is a major challenge for the renewable heat transition. Is continuing to connect these homes consistent with a net zero target? Should all of these 200,000 homes continue to be connected to the gas grid or be supported to move straight to renewable heating?
Our view is that there is unlikely to be a single, simple answer to this question. Instead a detailed review of the housing stock needs to be undertaken to determine the best way forward for these homes beyond the immediate term – ensuring decisions are consistent with the need to deliver against a net zero target. This should take place alongside a wider review of Northern Ireland’s gas grid expansion plans in the context of the need for Northern Ireland to reach net zero emissions. There is little point investing in the expansion of the gas networks when direct low carbon alternatives to natural gas (particularly hydrogen) are not yet fully demonstrated, and if developed are likely to be needed first in other sectors of the economy (industry, freight etc).
High quality, low carbon alternatives to fossil fuel heating already exist, and are proven, in the form of heat pumps and biomass boilers.
If the housing sector is to fully decarbonise the Northern Ireland Government must take steps to build confidence amongst customers, supply chains and wider stakeholders, in renewable heating systems. This should include the development of, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, support packages to incentivise consumers to install low-carbon heating in homes off the gas grid. We would recommend the roll-out of pilot programmes to demonstrate how heat pumps can work well in different types of Northern Irish homes and to test newer heat pump technologies (high temperature heat pumps, hybrid systems) in the Northern Irish context. There is also a need for the NI Government to work with industry and the regulator to develop better tariffs to support greater use of electricity for heat.
Read our full response to the Call for Evidence.