High hopes for a holistic approach to heat decarbonisation

High hopes have been pinned on the long-awaited Heat and Building’s Strategy. Initially due for publication last year, the pressure is on for the Government to publish a comprehensive programme of work that lives up to expectations and outlines the immediate actions required to reduce emissions from homes and buildings. The combined strategy is anticipated to take a holistic approach to heat decarbonisation to simultaneously reduce energy demand in buildings while also incentivising low carbon heating solutions. While time will tell how far the strategy will go to tackling the third of emissions associated with the way our buildings are heated, this whole-building approach is something that has long been needed to tackle the leaky housing stock primarily heated by fossil fuels.

The government has already indicated that the strategy will outline actions to deploy energy efficiency measures and low carbon heating; however, recent warnings from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) do well to remind us that the challenge has largely been underestimated to date.

The latest EAC report, Energy Efficiency of Existing Homes, details recommendations to improve energy efficiency upgrades and roll out low carbon heating measures without delay. Without urgent action across the next decade, the Committee has claimed that the government’s legally binding net zero target will fall flat, largely due to a misunderstanding of the costs and challenges associated with the decarbonisation of UK homes.

This drives home the message that more must be done by government to prepare for the future, and I am confident that this is the general belief of all those working hard across the industry to push forward the low carbon transition. The net zero challenge impact us all – be it consumers, installers, wider industry and government – and while we have seen great progress in recent years, we are still a far cry from where we need to be by 2050.

Fuelled by hopes and promises for a green recovery from the pandemic, industry has worked in unison over the last year to call for a clear pathway for our homes and buildings. We have also seen schemes, such as the Green Homes Grant, from the government which have gone a long way to demonstrate the high demand from homeowners for green home improvements. This demand has been a long time coming but it is important to remember that the poor administration of schemes could risk tarnishing the credibility of other incentives in the future. The Heat and Buildings Strategy must counteract this risk by setting out a clear pathway to decarbonise homes to ensure that plans are made and executed carefully. This is vital not only to ensure that homeowners have confidence in schemes like the Clean Heat Grant, for example, but to provide businesses and installers with the certainty they need to invest and adapt. The recent EAC report further reiterated this message, warning that the ‘lack of government investment and signals to the energy efficiency sector is doing little to incentivise businesses to upskill engineers and installers.’

The strategy must go as far as it can to counteract the risk of underdeveloped supply chains in the years ahead. Just last year, the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution announced a 600,000 deployment target for heat pumps per year from 2028 – a target that would propel the UK towards 1 million installations by 2030 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee. However, there is a very real risk that this target will hit a roadblock without the right investment and direction from the government.

Industry-wide efforts to grow supply chains through training new and existing installers are fundamental but endeavours will be futile if installers see no reason to change. There are over 1,600,000 gas boilers still being installed in the UK each year and over 100,000 conventional heating installers to get the job done. Yet we can’t currently say the same for solutions like heat pumps despite promises from the government for all heating systems in existing homes to be low carbon by 2035 and all new homes to be built zero carbon ready from just 2025. These goals, and the overarching net zero ambition, require most heating system installers to be upskilled and while they are perfectly capable of retraining to install more efficient, lower carbon technologies, there is not enough encouragement from the government for them to do so today.

There is a lot riding on the Heat and Buildings Strategy to more accurately address the scale of the heat decarbonisation challenge by outlining a programme of work that reflects the skills development required both in terms of energy efficiency and low carbon heating. The Scottish Government has recognised this challenge and is currently consulting on the skills requirements for energy efficiency, zero emissions and low carbon heating systems and heat networks. NIBE Energy Systems will be responding to this consultation and encourages others to help shape this important policy area.

We must take a whole buildings approach to the decarbonisation of our buildings and look at the challenge through a holistic lens. This means rolling out the right fabric efficiency and low carbon heating solutions into our homes but also doing all we can to support installers and homeowners throughout the low carbon transition.  

Written by Phil Hurley, managing director NIBE Energy Systems Limited and originally published on his blog, March 26, 2021.