Navigating the challenges of decarbonising heat: a homeowner’s journey

In early 2023, Helena Farstad and her family moved to their dream home: a listed farmhouse in picturesque East Anglia. Helena is a chartered management accountant and business consultant who has worked in environmental sustainability since 2010.

Helena Farstadt decarbonisation journey

Here, Helena shares the story of her attempts to decarbonise their home, and the wider struggles the 1.5million off-gas-grid dwellers face when they attempt to move towards sustainable living.

A new start

Our family of six (including our two Australian shepherds) moved to East Anglia just as the daffodils were blooming at their most beautiful. We came from Zone 2 in North London, where our lovely community was literally surrounded by A-roads, and the light pollution meant our children had never seen a night sky filled with stars. What a wonder it was to exchange ambulance sirens for tawny owl calls, and concrete pavements for gravel lanes.

However, moving into a centuries-old farmhouse that desperately needed insulation, quickly revealed the challenges we would face in maintaining the low carbon life that we had lived in London. The issue of decarbonising heat is already a national challenge, but it suddenly became a private challenge for us.

While extraordinary progress has been made to reduce the emissions from producing electricity, thanks to investment in renewable wind and solar and the closure of coal-fired power stations, the UK still lacks a decisive plan on how to decarbonise heat. This is critical, as heat is essential, whether for keeping our homes warm, ensuring hot water, or operating whatever is left of our domestic industry.

Facing the realities of kerosene

Like many of the 1.5million off-gas-grid dwellings in this country, a large oil tanker periodically pulls up outside our front door to fill up our domestic heating oil tank with kerosene. This logistical spectacle was new to me. I was completely unprepared for the physical reaction I felt from the sight and the smell of the oil pouring into our tank.

Kerosene is very polluting and, with a carbon footprint of approximately 2.5kg CO2e per litre, an average household can emit as much as 6.35t CO2e per year (assuming annual heating oil consumption of approx. 2,500 litres/dwelling) – or more than three times an individual’s carbon budget if we are to meet the Paris agreement. Kerosene is also highly toxic, to the extent that the World Health Organisation has recommended a stop to it being used as a household fuel.

Regardless of one’s position on global warming and climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, we know that burning oil, gas or wood is harmful for our health. It has been proven to result in respiratory issues, particularly impacting children.

Seeing the oil tanker pull up made me question: how is it that we have advanced in so many areas, yet we are dependent on the most crude and harmful form of fuel to accommodate the most basic things in life? It makes me wonder how we accept this, and why there is not more vocal demands for our government to get a move on.

The search for an alternative

After experiencing such discomfort about being dependent on oil, I instantly started looking into alternatives. I did not think that decarbonising our home would be an impossible quest. The first step was to get several heating consultations, as well as planning permission – a requirement as our property is a listed building. 

There did not seem to be a shortage of companies to approach. The four companies that we engaged and got quotes from seemed all very professional, and genuinely interested in the transition to cleaner energy. This did not seem to be just because they worked for a renewable energy company, but because they agree that, where possible, it’s the right thing to do. Notably, all of the reps were males in their early 30s eager to make a career in the green economy.

Heat pumps, ground source and HVO

First, we considered changing our heating system from oil to an air source heat pump. However, we quickly learned that it would cost us north of £40,000. That figure did not include the insulation or UK power upgrades needed. Considering that the running costs may be higher with a heat pump due to the electricity required to run the pumps frequently, this already seemed unfeasible. 

We did consider utilising the government incentives for air source heat pump installation, recently increased to £7,500 per installation. However, the current regulation dictates a certain level of temperature (21 degrees in main living areas and 18 degrees in bedrooms), which often also calls for an essential upgrade of radiators. This was the case for us, as we’d have to rip out all our well-functioning radiators and send them to a scrap yard. Not only is this wasteful, but it adds another £10k to the bill, thus cancelling out any incentive available.

During this process, we learned that ground source was even more expensive and much more disruptive, so it also didn’t feel like a good option for us. We were back to the drawing board. It started to dawn on me that moving away from combustion would be difficult after all.

The next step was to look into less polluting heating oil alternatives like HVO. I made numerous phone calls to various heating oil distributors, until it became clear to me this potential path is closed to domestic users. There just isn’t enough of the stuff, and whatever is there is deemed ‘’too expensive” for domestic use, so it’s not even marketed to that audience. We were at a dead end again.

A temporary solution: solar PV

In the interim, we have decided to invest in and install ground mount solar PV. This allows us to explore the possibility of heating at least part of our home using standalone electric heaters, as heating water required significantly less fuel. We may explore installing solar thermal in the future. This is not ideal and certainly no solution for everyone. But for us, thanks to the fact we have a bit of land, it is an imperfect workaround. This approach will still cost a significant amount of money however, it will allow us to stay within a reasonable carbon budget. 

Urgent action for a sustainable future

So, what now? Off-gas-grid UK households like ours, based on average usage assumption of approx. 2,500litres of heating oil/ pa, could account for more than 12% of the emissions from heating all UK homes, despite representing only around 6% of homes.

That part of the housing stock could, as a result, generate just shy of 10 million tonnes of CO2e every year – around 2% of the total UK emissions. It’s a big problem, and a big market. Yet, instead of coming up with answers to solve this acute heating issue, the Government has decided to pull back on the 2026 commitment of phasing out oil boilers. The government’s actions have taken the pressure off themselves, but they have also taken the incentive away from industry to come up with workable, affordable solutions.

While we impatiently wait for a strategy where the Government supports the 1.5million off-grid homeowners to decarbonise their heat, I have written to our MP and will continue to campaign for a policy and regulatory environment that is science-based and aligned with the Paris Agreement.

To see real impact, the responsibility to decarbonise must be taken away from individuals and allocated to the Government so it can drive the right behaviour via incentives and punitive measures for industry. Delaying policies that will accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy is, in my opinion, not the right approach. I hope business and the wider community agrees with me on this point and will voice their concerns to their respective MPs, and also to Andrew Bowie MP, the Minister for Nuclear and Networks who seems to be the responsible minister for these issues. 

The practicalities we’ve come up against in our own transition have led me to query exactly how our government is planning to decarbonise heat in the highly polluting domestic off-grid market, let alone the UK economy at large – and if there is a plan at all. As our situation shows, it can be almost impossible for even the best intentioned of homeowners to find a practical, affordable solution to home decarbonisation. But it shouldn’t be our problem to solve. 

What are your thoughts on the best route for Helena to take to achieve the home decarbonisation she desires? Please share them with Jessica: