Decarbonising the UK’s housing stock: Why one heating solution won’t solve all 

In this feature with Oliver Baker, CEO at Ambion Heating, we examine why one heating solution isn’t the answer to the UK’s low carbon issues.  

Decarbonising the UK’s housing stock: Why one heating solution won’t solve all

According to the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, around 17% of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are estimated to come from buildings, mainly due to burning fossil fuels for heating.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the challenge of fitting the UK’s homes with low-carbon heating systems has been, and continues to be, a key focus of recent government policies. 

In its latest report, ‘Powering Up Britain’, which included both the Energy Security and Net Zero Growth Plans, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero outlined several ways it plans to meet this challenge.  

Powering up Britain

One of the new measures announced was a £30 million Heat Pump Investment Accelerator to boost manufacturing and supply of heat pumps in the UK alongside the extension of The Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which offers a £5,000 grant to anyone buying a heat pump to 2028. 

However, the schemes to encourage a mass move to heat pumps have received a muted response from homeowners, particularly when it comes to properties with limited space or where tenants or homeowners are facing fuel poverty.  

While the future of heating is electric – the only sensible choice for the low-carbon transition – the options currently being championed at a government level simply aren’t feasible for all property types. 

So, what are the options for moving away from fossil fuel heating in a cost-effective, low carbon way that won’t exacerbate fuel poverty? 

There’s more to low-carbon heating than heat pumps 

While new government initiatives and grants supporting low-carbon heating schemes are welcome, the focus on heat pumps as the primary technology to decarbonise UK homes, omitting a range of alternatives available that provide environmental benefits, is shortsighted.   

Installers and property owners looking to reduce carbon emissions should be considering all low-carbon heating options, not just the ones presented to us by policymakers. 

For example, low-carbon heat panels offer a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuel and traditional convection heating systems, and heat pumps with little installation disruption, as there is no bulky external system or pipes. This is especially beneficial for properties where space is limited. 

Challenges for smaller properties 

Space is a huge challenge when it comes to decarbonising the UK’s varied housing stock. A recent report from the Telegraph newspaper showed that people living in rural areas are five times more likely to have a heat pump than those in urban regions, highlighting the particular considerations needed when installing a low-carbon system in a smaller property. 

There are millions of properties, including accommodation blocks, terraces, and smaller houses, where installing a large low-carbon heating system isn’t an option. With a high upfront cost and a lengthy, complicated and often disruptive installation process, these systems require space often unavailable in properties of this size. Requiring pipework, radiators and, external condenser units, heat pumps can also be costly to service and maintain. 

In addition, convection systems, including heat pumps, don’t help combat the mould and dampness that some properties are prone to. In fact, the warm air they produce, when coming into contact with cold walls, can cause further mould and condensation and harm residents’ wellbeing.   

With traditional systems failing to ensure the whole home is adequately and efficiently heated and options like heat pumps considered unsuitable or impractical for smaller spaces, installers are looking for alternative heating solutions, such as infrared heating panels. 

Reducing cost and carbon with electric heating 

Low-carbon heat panels have a unique control system which uses constant dynamic pulsing – rather than a ‘zoning’ on/off approach used by other systems – to dramatically reduce energy usage and maintain a room’s temperature within 0.1C of its target, 24 hours a day. 

Discreet infrared heat panels are then used because building materials absorb and store infrared, releasing it between pulses, making it the perfect partner for the pulsing approach. 

The results of using dynamic pulsing plus the infrared panels are significant – users can expect to use 63% less electricity when compared to conventional systems – which also equates to a 63% reduction in carbon emissions. 

The system also reduces the unit cost of electricity because it works best across 24-hours. This flat demand profile – there are no morning or evening energy spikes in usage – means that if a homeowner is on a flexi tariff, the system can achieve around a 25% saving in the unit cost of their energy.  

Some buildings and residents already see the benefits of using low carbon heat panels. For example, in an 8-storey social housing block from 1956, which contains 47 dwellings, the switch to Ambion’s solution saw energy usage drop by 80 percent, energy costs fall by 74 percent, and carbon emissions cut by 80 percent. 

Addressing the low-carbon skills gap 

Another issue to consider is the need to train qualified installers to fit heat pumps. According to latest data, there are only 1,500 MCS-certified heat pump installers in the UK. Still, the Heat Pump Association estimates 30,000 are needed to meet the government’s target to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. That’s a huge gap to fill.   

This shortage of qualified installers has led to some customer reservations about converting to a heat pump for fear of improperly installed systems, which, unfortunately, has been a costly reality for some.  

Low-carbon heat panels can be easily fitted by electricians – of which there are 259,000 in the UK – and we work closely with contractors to train them up to fit our system.  

A future-proof solution for decarbonising homes 

We are not suggesting that heat pumps don’t have a place in the transition from fossil fuel heating. We are saying that to meet the UK’s legally binding target of achieving net zero by 2050, a range of future-proof low-carbon heating solutions are required. This is particularly true for those properties where installing a heat pump isn’t feasible due to space or cost and where there isn’t a qualified installer to fit one.  

Having a choice of technologies is the only way to ensure a low-carbon heating transition that is just for all.