The energy needed to keep Britain warm is enormous. Our collective heating demands across the country — homes, businesses, industry — often dwarf our power hungry tea habits. This demand is overwhelmingly met by fossil fuels. Primarily gas, which more often than not is imported.
Our buildings alone contribute nearly one fifth of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, with a paltry 4.5% of the heating in all buildings comes from low-carbon sources.
It’s natural, therefore, to ask why hasn’t this been discussed more? And why has action to cut emissions in this sector been so slow?
When climate change and energy is debated in the media and by politicians, the focus is more often than not electricity. It’s only recently that we have started to talk about the whole energy package: electricity, heating, transport.
Good Energy currently offers carbon neutral gas, of which 10% is biomethane from renewable sources. The remainder is offset through sustainable projects around the world, such as biogas plants in Vietnam, or deforestation schemes in Malawi.
It is a great product which has a positive impact both nationally and internationally, which we launched in 2016 in response to customer demand. But we know that carbon offsetting cannot be the whole solution, and whilst we are committed to increasing the percentage of ‘green’ gas, that is currently proving hard to do in a sustainable way.
Which makes it all the more important that we encourage other routes to decarbonising the way we heat our homes.
Guy Newey is Director of Strategy and Performance at the Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit working to accelerate the transition to a clean economy. He agrees on the scale of the task: “Decarbonising domestic heating is the hardest challenge facing the energy sector on its path to a ‘net-zero’ economy. It is going to require innovation and imagination from companies and Government.”
Decarbonising domestic heating is the hardest challenge facing the energy sector on its path to a ‘net-zero’ economy.Guy Newey, Director of Strategy and Performance at the Energy Systems Catapult
Angela Terry is the founder of One Home, a consumer organisation designed to help people take positive steps to reduce their emissions. Her advice on heat is both useful and practical: “Insulation and draft proofing throughout the home are key and it is a real shame how little attention goes into this area of home improvements.”
“Ground source heat pumps are worthwhile, especially if you live off the mains gas grid. If you have a large home or business, then biomass boilers are worth a look at. For those who have solar panels, any excess electricity can be used to heat your hot water tank so that is a simple fix as well,” she adds.
Guy Newey also stresses the need for clear policy where we test sustainable options with communities on the local level: “The starting point has to be finding low carbon heating offers which are as good if not better than the current (already pretty good) consumer offerings. The lesson of electric vehicles is that consumer demand takes off when there are brilliant cars. We need to aim for the same in heating.
“That could mean harnessing new smart and digital technologies to understand what consumers really want from their heating system and giving them more control over how it works.”
There are clearly options we could be acting on today to make the transition easier and simpler. Here are three suggestions from us to get things rolling:
1. Reduce demand for heat.
Energy efficiency is a no-brainer which has multiple benefits for everyone: cheaper bills, comfortable homes, new high-skilled jobs.
In 2015, the government scrapped the nascent Zero Carbon Homes standard. That was a major mistake which is costing new homeowners hundreds of pounds a year. The standard must be reintroduced without delay alongside a new scheme to retrofit the millions of UK households which are deeply inefficient. The vast majority of our 29 million homes rank poorly for energy efficiency.
The heavy lifting of decarbonising heat could be made much easier by tackling the deep-rooted problem of leaky, draughty homes.
2. As we reduce demand for using the gas grid, we need to stop its expansion.
The UK currently has one of the highest levels of gas penetration in Europe, at around 80%.
For too long, housing developers have been encouraged to connect households to the gas grid with minimal to no payments required. We have also been told, unofficially, that some housing developers are even paid to have their sites connected. Thousands of new homes are being connected each year, making the job of tackling emissions that much harder.
The government’s recent plan to end fossil fuels to heat new homes by 2025 is welcome; now we need a set of tangible policies to make that a reality.
3. Light a fire under new, sustainable technologies.
If we want to bring about rapid change, low-carbon heating must be seen as an attractive business proposition. The long-standing Enterprise Investment Scheme currently excludes companies wanting to build energy infrastructure, but this is because it wasn’t created with sustainability in mind. Tax relief is vital for small companies wanting to gain a foothold in this sector. We should introduce carrots, such as tax breaks for solar thermal, or district heating systems; and sticks, tax increases for those not hitting carbon targets.
Let’s also pull at levers in the public sector, empowering local authorities and housing associations to procure low-carbon heating. Doing this at the scale of these projects can help bring costs down and further incentivise businesses to develop renewable heating products. Establishing a strong UK supply chain for these technologies will make it easier for consumers to make the switch away from old gas boilers to new air or ground source heat pumps.
These are our thoughts for a long overdue national debate on how we heat our homes in the future. We’d love to hear yours, and get Government, industry and the people working towards a warm Britain to be proud of.
One final thought; why don’t we increase VAT to 20% on all fossil-based heating fuels, and keep low carbon at the lower 5% rate? The opposite of what the government has proposed — sign our petition on this here.