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Publications / Blogs

Taking the Heat out of the debate

We did not see the Heat and Buildings Strategy before the local elections pushed us into purdah, but with core announcements already being trailed, plus the recent axing of the domestic Green Homes Grant, there is plenty of discussion over the ongoing challenges of decarbonising heat in buildings. Significant change is necessary, with government looking to ramp up installations of heat pumps to 600,000 per annum by 2028 and develop a hydrogen town in the early 2020s.

What is it then that this strategy is expected to deliver, and how should this change the discourse surrounding the decarbonisation of heat?

Today, provision of heating and hot water accounts for around 30% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions , and we need to achieve steep reductions in carbon-based heating to meet the UK’s emissions targets. The low carbon heat sector continues to suffer as successive governments, concerned about picking winners too early, have delivered a stop-start approach to subsidy that has undermined investor confidence considerably. Given the significant cost of decarbonisation of heat (~£100bn regardless of technology mix ) and the sheer scale of energy demand created by heat and cooling both now and in the future, there is no space for ‘either/or’ approaches – but there is also no time to wait and see.

Core research for the Committee on Climate Change  and, separately, the Energy Networks Association  indicates that regardless of the mix of solutions used in 2050, existing technologies today, including heat pumps, hot water storage, energy efficiency measures, bio-methane and district heating must be deployed at scale in the 2020s. This research also points to the need to advance Carbon Capture and all forms of hydrogen production technologies to enable the UK to introduce these across a range of economic sectors throughout the 2030s.

The UK will need to use all available technologies if we are to have any hope of decarbonising heat effectively . The government have confirmed that will be the approach: the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and the Energy White Paper both recognise a mix of technologies and highlight the importance of making progress in the current decade. The Heat and Buildings Strategy will do the same, setting out an ambitious approach for the rollout of existing technologies in the 2020s, and developing the evidence base, through real-world trials, to enable timely decisions to be made about technologies which don’t yet exist at scale.

The approach set out in the Heat and Building Strategy must tackle the fundamental issues that are currently limiting our progress on heat across all technologies. For example, the biggest barriers to the required scale up of heat pumps are their current upfront cost compared to a gas boiler and insufficient numbers of skilled workers to ensure efficient and cost-effective installations at scale. Hydrogen boilers are being tested now but the cost of upstream hydrogen production and the need for infrastructure – in terms of hydrogen production, carbon capture and networks – are key barriers to the use of hydrogen in a future green economy.
We are fortunate then, that the UK has faced challenges similar to these in our decarbonisation journey to date, and has overcome them. Progress has often been made when we’ve harnessed UK industry and research strengths, on things like market design, consumer services, and digital innovation and when we have thought about the system rather than individual technologies. The UK energy sector has delivered innovations across technologies and services in the past decade: electric vehicle tariffs that give consumers an incentive to charge at times that support the needs of the energy system; energy storage technologies and energy management software that maximise the effectiveness of energy assets; and weather prediction technologies that give granular detail on generation profiles increasingly far in advance.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy will need to include proposals that enable this kind of innovation to be core to tackling the heating challenge. While government can and should utilise levers across policy, regulation, taxation and subsidy to drive rapid progress, there remains a significant role for the energy industry. The sector must make a positive case to our customers for decarbonisation of heat, developing innovative services and propositions that will encourage people to grasp the benefits of changing their heating system or improving the efficiency of their homes.

At present, the public debate on heat decarbonisation is rooted too much in a discussion about particular technologies, stymying our ability to look at the needs of the wider system, halting innovation, and muddying the waters for governments, organisations and individuals to make decisions today. The discourse shouldn’t be about ‘hydrogen versus electrification’. Given that the route forward is clear, it should focus on issues like building supply chains and a national approach to skills or removing barriers to innovation as we’ve done in power.  

It is vital that we begin to talk about the challenges as openly as the benefits and that we continue to work collectively towards our shared goal of reaching net zero. That is what we should expect of the Heat and Buildings Strategy too.

This blog first appeared in Utility Week on 07/04/21