The case for low carbon heat

By Dr Jonathan Marshall, ECIU Head of Analysis

The issue of how we heat our homes is set to retake centre stage this week as the government's statutory advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, prepare to launch their long-anticipated report on how and when the nation should move to net zero emissions.

But even without that, home heating remains an area ripe for a re-think - for abandoning the old notion that gas, gas and more gas is the answer.

Historically, the first response when decarbonising heat is mentioned is ‘we don’t know how to do it’ or ‘it will be very difficult’. Often overlooked, though are the positives arising from the transition that lies ahead.

Health and Safety

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The discussion around low carbon heat has been shrouded in pessimism. Image: Pixnio

Firstly, low-carbon heating systems are generally more reliable than their high carbon ancestors, a fact that has not escaped landlords looking to cut down on the number of calls from tenants and emergency plumber bills eating away at profits.

Heat pumps, one of the leading low carbon heat technologies, can operate for decades with only minimal maintenance – offering peace of mind from broken down boilers or leaky installations.

There are also health benefits; the lack of combustion also takes with it the dangers of carbon monoxide poisioning – the cause of around 4,000 hospital visits and 50 deaths per year – and of the risks associated with highly flammable methane leaking in or near to our homes.

Gas boilers also contribute to air pollution, a particular issue in urban areas. GLA projections show that by 2020, domestic gas will be the source of 17% of NOx in Greater London’s air – more than that from Aviation (11%) or vans, minibuses and TfL buses combined (13.5%).

Experience upgrade

Although not often at the front of minds, the ‘user experience’ of keeping warm is ripe for updating.

Smart heating technologies come hand-in-hand with new tech that makes it more pleasant to be at home. Systems that learn when you are in and how you use your house can help keep bills down, while moving toward delivering heat as a service will offer even further control over spending – ensuring a cap on monthly spend and making it easier to focus financial assistance on fuel poor homes.

Some technologies offer more functionality than the gas boilers they are set to replace. Heat pumps, for example, can work ‘in reverse’ to keep homes cool during the summer, as well as providing heat through the winter months.

With a Paris-compliant climate target imminent, the UK is in prime position to get ahead of the competition in developing a low carbon heating industry.

World-leading hydrogen production facilities in the North East, British engineering firms further improving heat pump performance, and a booming smart tech industry are all set and raring to go. A market consisting of the vast majority of homes in the UK – and in other high-latitude countries – is up for grabs.

Progress?

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Energy Minister Claire Perry is overseeing a number of work streams on heat.

Following years out of the spotlight, the recent CCC recommendation that new build homes should not be connected to the gas grid – which has been taken on in earnest by the Chancellor – the fire has now been lit under political and policy discussions on how to tackle carbon emissions from homes.

It appears that the government is finally facing up to the issue at hand. During 2019 alone we are expecting action to tackle building regulations – ensuring that new properties are both designed to high standards and actually built to meet them – alongside detail on Philip Hammond’s Future Homes Standard, as announced in the Spring Statement.

We are also due a spending review, in which heat is anticipated to fill one of BEIS’ central asks, an insulation retrofit standards review, the outcome of a multi-year Energy Systems Catapult project into low carbon heat, and – of course – the CCC’s advice on how to take national emissions all the way down to net zero.

Following this smorgasbord comes the main course – a sector wide policy framework on heat in buildings, expected in the first half of next year. Building on a 136-page evidence review that was released just before Christmas and a recent CCC tome on heat and buildings, this document should thrash out the detail on how we can keep warm at home without pushing up global temperatures too.

Turning off the gas

Pessimistic statements that surround the current debate overlook both policy progress which is taking place right now and the positive aspects of turning our backs on high carbon heating sources.

This isn’t to say that the wholesale move away from high carbon heat will be easy. Calling time on connecting new homes to the gas grid will help, but there remain more than 20 million homes currently heated by gas.

Having (hopefully) learnt from the smart meter rollout, there are a number of precedents for successful large scale change.

The rapid rollout of high speed internet required new wires and cables across the land, turning our backs on analogue TV saw new equipment in every home, while the switch away from town gas towards natural gas in the 1960s and 1970s brought with it change very similar to those expected with the next steps on heat.

With hindsight, the benefits of these transitions are clear, and well worth the upheaval at the time. Hopefully in decades to come we will look back on bringing heat into the 21st Century in similar terms.