Is there a convincing UK strategy to deliver low-carbon heating?

Low Carbon

In a blizzard of net zero strategies the long awaited, 200 page long, Heat and Buildings Strategy finally emerged in the run up to COP26. The timing designed to demonstrate the UK’s leadership in driving the net zero agenda, to broaden its green credentials beyond the wind sector and to recognise that heating accounts for one third of the CO2 emissions connected to energy and domestic heating for homes is a major component.

The gestation of the strategy has been long and rather tortured as elements have been tested through media leaks and to the scrutiny of HM Treasury. The delivery was not fantastically well received either, with most reactions reflecting a sense of being underwhelmed with the pace of delivery and scale of investment.

The issue with decarbonisation of domestic heating is that it is extraordinarily complex. First, there is the choice of heating appliance, with heat pumps being the leading contender, but there are other solutions involving district heating and hydrogen. A choice of size of heat pump needs to be carefully matched to the thermal efficiency of the home, unlike gas boilers which are typically over specified in terms of capacity. Moreover poorly installed and maintained heat pumps will leave home owners in the cold.

There is also the question of infrastructure. If everyone has a heat pump, then the electricity grid at the local level needs to be upgraded as does the electricity generation at a national scale.

However, cost of a heat pump and its installation may be the biggest show stopper, combined with low consumer confidence and questions over the UK’s ability to deliver the proposed 600,000 installations a year. This amounts to 300 installations an hour every working day.

How does the strategy measure up to the challenge? Does it deliver in the CBI’s “Decade of Delivery”? The Heat and Buildings Strategy is a remarkable read which in the end is a bit of a conundrum. It sets out a deep understanding of the complexity of the challenges, points towards solutions including the need for zoning, whereby particular areas are designated for low-carbon heating approaches and understands the need for local delivery and coordination.

On the other hand, the actual strategy commitments are lite and miss the scale of investment that is required to really make an impact. The funding commitment of £450m for grants of £5k for an air source heat pump, targeted at offsetting the price difference of a gas, gives 90,000 installations total which is a long way short of 600,000 a year. Further, it will only provide parity for the cheapest and least powerful heat pump. It will perhaps incentivise those who are adventurous, but will not touch the majority, particularly in the West Midlands, a region which is shown to have the most extreme fuel poverty in the country.

There is a need for greater ambition and coordination as embodied in the West Midlands proposal for a National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat.

There is a sense that there was potential to do so much more, but this has been undermined by political nervousness over a backlash from the electorate and a conservative Treasury. As such, it may not provide the best message regarding the UK’s ambition in the run up to COP26 and, in advance of negotiations, is actually one which reveals the UK’s own Achilles’ heel.

**Further information on Research from the University of Birmingham around Cop26 is available here.

Professor Martin Freer, School of Physics and Astronomy & Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI)