The Heat and Buildings Strategy - Why the Delay?
It feels like we've been waiting on the publication of the Heat and Buildings strategy for an eternity. Initially set to be published in May, then June, July and as August inevitably comes and goes, the silence from decision makers in Whitehall only gets louder.
Reports suggest that the strategy identifying how the UK will decarbonise central heating systems in homes and workplaces will not be seen until Autumn at the earliest, leaving those of us in the heating industry twiddling our thumbs – not to mention homeowners questioning what the future holds when it comes to keeping their homes warm.
So why the holdup? It seems that Whitehall and the Department for Business and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) cannot agree on how best to incentivise the public to rip-out their boilers and move to low-carbon alternatives, such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers. It is thought that the Treasury is reluctant to subsidise the (large) cost that comes with transitioning to decarbonised heating.
The critical point and reason for the delay is due to the difficulty in knowing exactly what to do. And it's becoming increasingly clear that the government is struggling to come up with the answers.
There is no denying that significant change is needed in how we heat our homes if we are to reduce carbon emissions. Central heating accounts for about 30% of total UK carbon emissions and we all know that we cannot keep at these levels and get to net zero by 2050. The problem, which is slowly dawning on the government, is that there is no quick, one size fits all solution when it comes to decarbonising the nation’s heating.
Can we afford to go green?
Air Source Heat Pumps
As it stands, air source heat pumps do not come cheap with prices ranging from £6,000 up to an eye-watering £18,000. Heat pumps are also not suitable for millions of UK homes, due to poor insulation or a lack of space. In addition to this, there are nowhere near enough qualified installers available to fit the target of 600,000 heat pumps every year. Investment needs to be made for recruiting and training installers and reducing the cost of heat pumps.
Solar panels come in at an average of £5,000 but again, are not suitable for all houses. The removal of the feed-in-tariff (FIT) has removed a large incentive for solar panel investment and while the smart export guarantee is available, the financial benefits do not come close to the first FIT payments customers received for selling electricity back to the grid.
Public misconception of the advantages of solar panels is also worrying. Research conducted by Project Solar UK revealed that 7.4 million Brits believe electricity can't be generated in overcast weather while 5.7 million think that solar can only be produced in the summer. This lack of education highlights the need for more work in generating awareness on renewable energy solutions.
Carbon free (at the point-of-use), electric boilers appear to pique the public's interest. Thousands of customers visit the Boiler Guide website every week researching the pros-and-cons of electric boilers. While similar in price to gas boilers, electric boilers will add hundreds of pounds to energy bills due to the far greater price per unit for electricity. For homeowners to go fully electric, there will need to be a government intervention to reduce electricity levies and the obligations that see average unit rates of 17p per kWh, compared to the 4p per kWh of gas.
Hydrogen boilers are still in the prototype stage so there is no real indication of how much they are likely to cost. Changes will also have to be made to the gas network as it is currently not possible to pump hydrogen through it and into home.
The vast majority of UK homeowners will be either reluctant to part with their money or simply unable to afford greener alternatives. The government must share the financial burden to get the public onside. While most reasonable thinking people want to do their bit for climate change, they will not entertain crippling themselves financially to do so. A recent poll in the Daily Express asking readers if gas boilers should be banned to help the environment resulted in 79% of respondents saying NO!
Having said all this, the cost of not making the changes needed to reduce carbon emissions will be far greater in the longer term.
Gas Boiler Ban
There has been a lot of press activity surrounding the so-called ‘gas boiler ban.’ Misleading news and clickbait headlines has led to rabid rumours, including fines for owning a gas boiler and fears of gas bogeymen visiting homes in the dead of night to forcibly remove boilers. (Boiler Guide has received these calls from worried customers). The more the government delays their plans, the more these stories will be plucked out of the air by a media eager for online clicks.
Gas boilers heat 78% of the nation’s homes so the cost and logistics involved in replacing them all with a renewable alternative is just not realistic. It is believed that Boris Johnson’s government is backtracking on a promise to stop the sale of boilers by 5 years, from 2035 to 2040. This does however make sense and could allow for the preparation of a hydrogen ready grid.
What are the answers?
It's all well and good detailing the difficulties of decarbonising heating but decisions do need to be made and sooner rather than later. There are no easy solutions but it is the job of the government to guide us through these murky waters and make the investment needed to achieve the climate change targets that are not set out in law.
A renewable heating mix is a must. It makes sense for air source heat pumps to be installed into well-insulated and spacious homes. We need new incentives and education for an increase in solar installations and full-scale investments is needed to explore the potential for hydrogen. If, and it is still a big if, hydrogen can take the place of gas, we may get to net zero at a reasonable cost.
We continue to wait on the details of the Heat and Buildings strategy and hold out hope that the right decisions will be made for the heating industry, UK homeowners and even more importantly – the sustainability of the environment.