Delivering Domestic Heating in Energy Efficient Homes Needs Major Policy Improvements in the UK

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Solar Together poster Chichester District Council June 2023 (discontinued scheme)
Solar Together poster Chichester District Council June 2023 (discontinued scheme) photo by A.Howse

The current situation and NetZero challenge

For several years the UK government has aimed to deliver a strategy that sees England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland reach Net Zero by 2050. The Energy Saving Trust defines this as “achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the carbon removed from it.”

The Energy Saving Trust declares optimistically that the country will ‘unlock’ £90 billion in investment to achieve this important aim. Emissions from homes, transport, agriculture and industry will need to be substantially cut. (1)

Why to we need to aim for NetZero in the UK domestic heating sector and what can be done?

Carbon dioxide is emitted when fossil fuels are burned to meet our demand for energy. There are also other greenhouse gases but carbon dioxide is the most significant problem causing global warming and other severe weather-related problems globally.

Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) “refers to a suite of technologies that enable the mitigation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from large point sources like power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities, or the removal of existing CO2 from the atmosphere.” (2)

“Approximately 14% of carbon emissions in the UK are contributed by the usage of fossil fuels for home heating.” according to Greenmatch. (3)

As part of central government policy in 2021 eligible households in the UK could apply for government grants to the value of up to £5000 to upgrade their property and invest in low carbon technologies such as heat pumps for their home heating. However, applications for the Renewable Heat Incentive closed at the end of March 2022. (4)

“Making our buildings more energy efficient and moving away from fossil fuel boilers will help make people’s homes warm and comfortable, whilst keeping bills low.” Stated the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2020 as part of previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan. (5)

Currently the main heating solutions currently in use are: gas boilers, low-efficiency electric heating, high carbon oil and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) boilers (usually in off-grid homes) and solid fuel systems such as wood or coal. (6)

Citizens in the UK in 2024 are facing higher than ever costs of owning or renting a home. The heating bill is usually the largest monthly payment that most households make after their rent or mortgage is deducted (often around 50% of home bills).

Average salaries are around £30,000 and the average house costs around £300,000 which means homeowning is a privilege not possible for the majority of adults in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2022 less than 20 percent of adults under 64 years of age owned their own homes outright in England and this only increases to 35 percent of over 65 years olds in England. This is relevant as it is only the homeowners who will initially pay for upgrading the housing stock in the UK due to the large sums of money and long-term commitment involved in making the major system changes required. (8)

A British Gas guide says heating bills in an average UK home is between £2000 and £3000 per year and this month the standing charge has been raised significantly. The price cap which governs the prices suppliers can charge has also been raised again and this will affect all households, especially the poorest, during the ongoing cost- of-living-crisis in the UK. (9) (10)

Martin Lewis at MoneySavingExpert calls this standing charge system a moral hazard as it disenfranchises customers who want to control their bills by turning the heating right down or off. (11)

The UK government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy

The UK government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy does not offer any ‘quick fix’ solutions to upgrading the aging and inefficient housing stock in the UK. The UK governments Heat and Buildings Strategy survey has highlighted that there is a shortage of heat pump installation engineers. This is important as heat pump installation must comply with Part L and Part P of the Building Regulations. Therefore, existing engineers need to be upskilled in order to install new style heating systems. (12)

The current UK buildings strategy report updated in March 2023 advises that “The Green Homes Grant voucher scheme for England offered vouchers to fund up to two thirds of the value of energy performance and low-carbon heat measures up to the value of £5,000 for homeowners and residential landlords. (or 100% up to the value of £10,000 for low-income owner-occupiers). (12)

More than 133,700 applications were received, and more than 79,200 vouchers have been issued.” However, the Green Homes grant was severely criticised as a “slam dunk fail” as only around 47,500 homes actually benefitted from the scheme, which cost the tax payer over £50 million in administration fees. (13)

The report also points out that local authorities have been given funding to additionally support low-income households in England. This is often delivered through council tax reductions. (12)

The Home Upgrade Grant (HUG) was introduced in 2022 and intended to support upgrades to the worst-performing off-gas grid homes in England. £150 million funding was granted for the first phase of HUG, and a further £950 million funding has been and is available over 2022/23 to 2024/25. (12)

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) aims to upgrade social housing stock which does not meet EPC band C criteria and £800 million was earmarked to be allocated to these improvements. (12)

Hydrogen is an ‘indirect greenhouse gas’ and ways in which to utilise hydrogen which can be produced using low-carbon methods and used for energy solutions in the UK in the future, are currently being investigated by government, industry and regularity bodies.

It is hoped that hydrogen might be able to be piped into houses replacing the need for gas boilers which are currently installed in most homes around the British Isles. Investing in a hydrogen ready gas boiler may be a good option for millions of semi-detached and mid-terrace homes connected to the grid. This could happen gradually as homeowners need to replace their existing gas boilers at the end of their lifespan. (12)

What home heating choices do UK citizens have that help towards reaching NetZero

Citizens in the UK can choose to reduce their household emissions in order to help meet the government’s 2050 Net Zero objectives, if they have savings or expendable income to contribute to the project. One main area is replacing a gas or oil boilers with a more environmentally friendly alternative. The three main options are currently: heat pumps, solar water heating and biomass heating systems. (6)

Hydronic Heat pumps

These can be ground source or air source and occasionally a water source heat pump.

“They work by absorbing heat from a source (in the environment) and transferring it to a fluid, which is compressed to increase the temperature further. The heat is typically transferred from the fluid into water, which is then used to provide heating and hot water to your home.” (6) Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) absorb heat from the air. Ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) absorb heat from the ground.

“As the cold snap bites, it’s time to mention networked ground source heat pumps as a solution to our heating needs, especially for complex-to-decarbonise homes such as high-rise social housing blocks or terrace streets. Due to their discreetness, how they work and the steady ambient temperature of the ground, networked ground source heat pumps provide efficient, cost-effective heating (and cooling) whatever the weather.” Says Tamsin Lishman CEO of The Kensa Group. (4)

However, “domestic-scale heat pumps only provide low temperature heat.” (12)  Heat pump systems used in larger properties such as commercial buildings or communal residential flats are more suited to obtaining higher temperatures.

Heat pumps can be used ‘in reverse’ as cool air pumps which can be useful as global temperatures rise. Hybrid heat pumps can offer benefits including reducing the reliance on natural gas boilers, whilst still offering a good level of thermal comfort. These heat pumps do not help the UK reach Net Zero due to the gas still being burned and the use of refrigerants that contain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in some products. (12)

Solar Water Heating

Solar panels also called ‘collectors’ use solar energy from the sun to heat up water that is then stored in a hot water cylinder. (6) The water can be made hotter using a conventional boiler or an immersion heater, which is also useful for when solar energy is not available during darker cloudier days.

Biomass Heating

Wood pellets, chips or logs “heat a single room, or to power central heating and hot water boilers.” The energy saving trust explains how although this method is essential burning fossil fuels, sourcing the wood locally is better for the environment. Biomass can be a more sustainable option when the materials are sourced in a way where there are new plants and trees that continue to grow in place of wood used for fuel.  (6)

The above technologies can be used in combination to obtain optimum flexible heating results for both keeping a warm home and enjoying hot water when required.

“In 2018, domestic burning through wood burning stoves and coal fires was the single largest contributor to national emissions of particulate matter. These particles can cause respiratory illnesses and heart disease. Burning of wood and coal also releases nitrogen oxides, which lead to ozone layer depletion, formation of acid rain, as well as causing respiratory diseases.” (14)

Therefore, great care and consideration needs to be taken when choosing bioenergy to ensure this choice of fuel burning is helping UK residents to move towards NetZero.

Bioenergy can help achieve the environmental targets committed to by the government. This is by reusing materials and fuel of ‘biogenic origin’ such as when manure storage and waste disposal is treated with anaerobic digestion to produce biogas (e.g. biomethane) and bioliquids (e.g. bioLPG), or solids such as wood pellets or chippings. (12)

These treated biofuels can then be used to heat buildings of all types including homes and can be suitable in rural or ‘off-grid’ locations as the best solution for meeting energy efficient needs of a household. However, these solutions are still in need of infrastructure development before they become a widely used heating choice for UK homes.

Summary of the 3 main energy efficient heating systems currently available

All of these three heating solution options above cost upwards of £5,000 thousand pounds and could total more than £20,000 depending on the chosen system. Property location, size of indoor and outdoor space and the age and type of home, as well as the needs of the household, will dictate which options is (or options are) most suitable for each specific home upgrade project.

Councils do not currently have a range of alternative energy home heating schemes to offer to average working and tax paying home owners (or renters) this spring 2024 (see our next article for more information of help with energy bills for those on benefits). The poster image with this article reaches a council web page which requests ‘registrations of future interest’ which is no real help for those eager to upgrade their homes in order to reach our Net Zero targets. (15)

For those with the wherewithal to continue their home upgrade projects regardless, there are suppliers out there in England. Contacting the local council for a list of registered companies who are certified to safely install or deliver these alternative heating systems and getting multiple cost quotes is a sensible idea from the Energy Saving Trust. (7) See our next article for more details of why we urgently need a better energy efficient home heating government policy strategy to reach NetZero by 2050 in the UK.

 

 

(1) ‘What is net zero and how can we get there?’ Energy Saving Trust, 18 January 2024 ‘What is net zero and how can we get there?’ Energy Saving Trust

(2) ‘What is carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and what role can it play in tackling climate change?’ London School of Economics and Political Science and Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, 13 March 2023 ‘What is carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and what role can it play in tackling climate change?’ London School of Economics and Political Science and Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

(3) ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy – UK Announces Grants to Promote Green Heat’ 18 January 2024 ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy – UK Announces Grants to Promote Green Heat’

(4) ‘We need to urgently replace inefficient heating in UK homes’ Kensa CEO, BDC News Team, Building Design and Construction Online Newspaper, 17 January 2024 ‘We need to urgently replace inefficient heating in UK homes’ Kensa CEO, BDC News Team, Building Design and Construction

(5) ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ Policy Paper, UK Government, 18 November 2020 ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ Policy Paper, UK Government

(6) CCC (2018), ‘Biomass in a low-carbon economy’, p. 66 CCC (2018), ‘Biomass in a low-carbon economy’, p. 66

(7) ‘A quick guide to low carbon heating’ Energy Saving Trust, 9 February 2021 ‘A quick guide to low carbon heating’ Energy Saving Trust

(8) ‘Share of homeowners in England in 2022 by age’ Statistica website, 16 October 2023 ‘Share of homeowners in England in 2022 by age’ Statistica website

(9) ‘What is the average energy bill in Great Britain?’ British Gas, 19 January 2024 ‘What is the average energy bill in Great Britain?’ British Gas

(10) ‘Energy Price Cap’ Ofgem, UK Government, 19 January 2024 ‘Energy Price Cap’ Ofgem, UK Government

(11) ‘Martin Lewis: Why are energy standing charges so high and what can be done?’ Martin Lewis at MoneySavingExpert.com, 2 Jan 2024 ‘Martin Lewis: Why are energy standing charges so high and what can be done?’ Martin Lewis at MoneySavingExpert.com

(12) ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy’ HM Government UK, published 19 October 2021, updated 1 March 2023 ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy’ HM Government UK

(13) ‘Green Homes Grant Was a ‘Slam Dunk Fail’, Report Says’ Homebuilding and Renovating, 2 December 2021 ‘Green Homes Grant Was a ‘Slam Dunk Fail’, Report Says’ Homebuilding and Renovating

(14) ‘Government takes action to cut pollution from household burning’ Press Office UK Government website, 21 February 2020 ‘Government takes action to cut pollution from household burning’ Press Office UK Government website

(15) Solar Together’ Chichester District Council, West Sussex (‘no active scheme’ in 2024 page) ‘Solar Together’ Chichester District Council, West Sussex (discontinued)