The UK needs to reach ‘near total’ decarbonisation of buildings in order to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to an analysis by the Climate Change Committee. But given the complexity, cost and scale of this challenge (28 million buildings), it is one that will require collaboration between national, regional and local governments, industry and consumers to realise.
Against the backdrop of significant reform and change underway in the wider energy system and retail market, Energy UK brought together a panel of experts at their event ‘The space (heating) race: 28 million solutions’ to consider what a whole-systems approach to the decarbonisation of heat could look.
Joining Dhara Vyas Energy UK’s Deputy Chief Executive as chair on the panel, included Dr Rose Chard, Fair Future Programme Lead at Energy Systems Catapult, Sam Hollister, Head of Markets and Engagement at LCP Delta, Dr David Joffe, Head of Net Zero & Acting Director of Analysis at the Climate Change Committee, and Ben Rimmington, Director General, Net Zero Buildings & Industry, at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.
Responding to a crisis
The government has brought forward a number of policy measures over the past year to accelerate retrofit activity and to help consumers afford their energy bills, in response to the unprecedented increase in international wholesale gas prices. In outlining the government’s policy response, Ben Rimmington also noted that the economic context had made the response harder, with Ministers now facing a set of strategic policy challenges within energy, of which buildings are just one piece of the puzzle.
Despite this, some panellists felt that the near-term response from Government had been muted on retrofit, especially after a decade of policy failure on the decarbonisation of buildings. There was particular mention of supply chain constraints, and, as recently highlighted by Energy Systems Catapult research, little progress on diversifying the workforce, which will be essential to bringing along all consumers in the transition.
Taking inspiration from near and afar
Dr Joffe said that inspiration for system change can be drawn from other areas of the energy transition, and in particular in the decarbonisation of the electricity sector, which has seen enormous success in reducing emissions by 70% in less than a decade. He said that part of this success story was a package of policies that targeted specific challenges in the market.
Indeed, looking abroad, research of market activity across Europe by LCP Delta’s European heat research service shows that countries providing long-term policy certainty and incentives, such as Italy, have seen significant growth in their low-carbon heat markets. Italy now has the largest market for hybrid heating technologies in Europe.
The Netherlands has also taken swift action in recent years by banning new connections to the gas grid in 2019, and providing clear policy signals as to the role of hybrid heating systems in its transition.
Getting the right technology in the right places
The UK government adopts a technology-neutral approach to heat decarbonisation, but the question remains as to what extent policy should narrow the available pathways. While not all customers will have the option for hydrogen or heat networks to supply heat to their homes, within the electrification of heat, there will continue to be a range of choices and scope for innovation.
A technology-neutral approach creates space for innovation. However, while Ben Rimmington talked about the system benefits and low-regrets aspect of the government’s recent consultation on their proposal to mandate that all boilers be hydrogen-ready from 2026, Dr Joffe noted that the real-world impact of this decision could result in some conflicting messaging from industry to consumers about the likelihood of hydrogen being supplied to all homes in the future.
The challenge is less about the technology itself, therefore, and more about achieving collective buy-in to the transition.
The role of customers
Dr Chard argued that rather than approaching this discussion from the perspective of getting the right technology in the right places, starting from the question of what good outcomes look like for vulnerable consumers, and working with the grain of household behaviour, would be a more fruitful approach. Indeed, she said that placing vulnerable consumers at the core of future system design will generate better outcomes for everyone.
Good relationships between customers and suppliers will be crucial, as not only will this help to build the data needed to adopt a customer-led transition, but it will also create space for the industry to make mistakes. The panellists supported the notion that, when it comes to heat decarbonisation, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Sam Hollister highlighted the findings of the Electrification of Heat trials that demonstrated plainly the role that customer support will play in the success of the transition, in particular access to a go-to contact who can provide tailored support to consumers. He said that the challenge of providing an enhanced consumer experience, and of building confidence around the retrofitting process (as a lack of confidence was one of the main reasons why people dropped out of the trials), was one that energy suppliers were uniquely placed to rise to.
The issue is therefore not which technology is installed in the home, but rather the service that the customer receives, including cost and controls.
Moving towards a whole-systems approach
Place-based approaches, led by local authorities, can help to build these relationships and empower communities. Ben Rimmington said that from the government’s perspective, place-based approaches will become more of a focus in the years ahead, with schemes such as the Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery Scheme and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund as proving to be successful delivery models for retrofit. Through the heat networks zoning legislation, currently moving through Parliament in the Energy Bill, local authorities will be stepping into an enhanced role when it comes to coordinating the decarbonisation of heat. He said that the government is planning to pilot the devolution of retrofit budgets to local areas to support a place-based approach, and he also highlighted the potential for local authorities to bring in private investment by packaging up work to attract institutional investors.
Furthermore, local authorities will also be important stakeholders in research and innovation, through the application of the hydrogen neighbourhood and village trials.
Sam Hollister said that the question of how to bring together demand planning and modelling for supply were still big questions, and that more modelling was needed to support a whole systems approach.
Having more data on how systems work today, and improving their efficiencies, is an important piece of work that sits alongside the long-term transition. The panellists agreed that the recent campaigns for households to reduce their boiler flow temperatures had proven to be extremely successful both in terms of reducing energy demand and improving affordability during the cost of living challenges, and that this demonstrated the way in which public and private sector partnerships will be crucial to helping consumers access the benefits of net zero homes going forward.
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