Decarbonising heat: some positive steps but a long way to go

Dave Sowden, chairman of Ecuity Consulting and strategic advisor to Sustainable Energy Association discusses the UK’s progress in decarbonising heat.

The legislation of the UK’s net zero target last year positioned us as leaders in the climate debate, but how do we go about decarbonising Britain in just thirty years? With the built environment answerable for a third of greenhouse emissions, one thing to be sure of is that we must change the way we heat our homes and buildings. To put that challenge into perspective, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advise that the share of low carbon heating systems needs to rise from 4.5% today to 90% by 2050.

Over the last few years, we have seen various pledges from the government to reduce emissions from heating. The Clean Growth Strategy laid out promises to phase out of fossil fuels in off-grid homes by the end of the 2020s and upgrade all homes to EPC Band C by 2035, and the Future Homes Standard consultation proposed a 31% carbon cut from new builds with ‘world leading levels of efficiency’ from 2025. Yet with a delayed energy White Paper and a Heat and Buildings Strategy still to come, the route to net zero remains unclear – and industry is calling out to the Government for clarification. This need has only been exacerbated in recent months in the context of economic uncertainty, with many concerned that the pandemic will dangerously undermine the low carbon transition.

By proceeding with the publication of the low carbon heat consultation at the end of April, the Government signaled its unwavering commitment to heat decarbonisation, and whilst this has evoked a shared sigh of relief, there has been a mixed response to proposals themselves. In short, the proposals include support for the deployment of green gas via a levy on gas bills, and a Clean Heat Grant Scheme (CHGS) to follow the Renewable Heat Incentive. The CHGS would offer £4,000 upfront grants to consumers to purchase heat pumps, and in some cases biomass, to incentive consumers to make the switch, and though this support has been welcomed for addressing the upfront cost barrier faced by consumers today, many have raised concerns about its indisputable limitations.

On the one hand, support for early adopters could encourage upskilling and drive down costs across the supply chains, but on the other, the £100 million grant scheme is limited to just 12,500 heat pumps per year – for just two years. This falls significantly short compared to the £130 million grant scheme proposed by the Heat Pump Association, which demonstrates an uptake of around 34,000 installations in the first year alone, and of course there is no guarantee that people will use them. Even at full potential, 25,000 heat pumps are just a drop in the ocean compared to the 19 million that need to be installed to meet net zero according to the Committee on Climate Change.

Calls for much stronger ambition have been echoed across industry. Many are calling for energy efficiency support to be integrated into covid-19 economic recovery packages and for the Government to fulfil the £9 billion for such measures as promised in the Conservative manifesto last December.  At the same time, the Sustainable Energy Association has launched a policy paper calling for a carbon intensity standard to be implemented alongside support mechanisms to help phase out fossil fuel heating in homes off the gas grid.

The projected regulation would set a limit to the permitted emissions per kWh of heat provided and apply on a rolling basis at time of replacement, to ensure deployment of shelf-ready solutions immediately whilst allowing for innovation across the sector; the suggested support mechanisms include financial incentives such as low carbon heat savings schemes, green mortgages and loans. The  Sustainable Energy Association ‘Off Grid, Off Carbon’ report was launched earlier this month following an initial market consultation phase at the start of the year, demonstrating a shared consensus on the urgent need for regulation to decarbonise heat –  a requirement that is arguably stronger following the announcement of short term demand-led grants.

As the national lockdown continues in what was predicted to be the year of climate action, it is reassuring to see so many discussions still going ahead.  The net zero goal remains just as crucial and commitment from both industry and government will make all the difference over the next thirty years as we edge closer to that target. Heat decarbonisation currently looks like an impossible task, but I am hopeful that the dedication across industry will encourage momentum and prove that where there’s a will, there is a way.