3 Steps to Low Carbon Heating

Comment by Dr Matt Lipson

Consumer Insight Business Leader

BBC Panorama approached Energy Systems Catapult to help them understand what the UK Government’s commitment to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 will mean for a normal British household, in an episode by called: Climate Change: What Can We Do?

“The government has promised Britain will radically reduce carbon emissions to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To get there, we’ll need to make big changes to the way we live – to our homes, how we travel, and what we eat – but how much difference will these changes really make? With the help of a family in Nottingham, Justin Rowlatt finds out what are the most important things we can do and asks what the government is doing to encourage us to change the way we live.”

If you haven’t seen the Panorama program on Net Zero, it is well worth taking a look. However being limited to just 30mins of screen time, there was only so much content they could include, so we thought people might want a bit more information on how to get to Net Zero.

Earlier this year Energy Systems Catapult published a report for the Committee on Climate Change called Living Carbon Free. This explored what is means to cut emissions in UK households by 80%, >90% and 100% (Net Zero) compared to 1990 level, across six activities: heating and electricity, transport and aviation, diet and waste.

Of those six activities, heat is the toughest Net Zero challenge facing the UK with only around 5% of UK homes currently having low carbon heating.

So that’s what we focused on for Panorama and what we focus on here;

3 Steps to Low Carbon Heating

We’ve developed a three step process for Net Zero heating, which we discussed with Alex and Claudine in their lovely Nottingham home:

  1. Put heat where you want it – firstly install advanced smart heating controls (and if-needed better radiators) – this improves control over comfort and cost and can provide a wealth of data about thermal performance of your home.
  2. Keep the heat where you want it  – secondly, upgrade your home with energy efficiency measures, a bit like wrapping your home in a scarf. Based on bespoke data from your own home, decisions can be made on the right options, such as better insulation and double glazing to reduce heat loss (and the amount of energy required).
  3. Make the heat low carbon – thirdly, you’ll need to replace your fossil fuel boiler with a low carbon alternative. Hydrogen boilers and district heating will increasingly become options for some, but today heat pumps (air-source, ground-source or hybrids) are the best option for most.

“So”, Justin asked me, “how much is all of this going to cost and will it pay for itself through savings?” A fair, but awkward question.

Clearly it doesn’t cost less to live without carbon or we’d already be doing it. The truth is that Alex and Claudine’s home will be more expensive to decarbonise than most because it’s a big, old house built in the 1930s before energy efficiency standards were tightened – and long before central heating even existed. New homes will cost less because they’re already well insulated. From 2025 no new homes will come with boilers fired by natural gas.

“About £23-30k” I replied “and, no it won’t pay for itself”. But that’s not really the end of my answer. Off camera, over a delicious vegan lunch (another Net Zero change the family were trying out) I bored the team with the rest of it.

Bundle it in with other renovations

Many families spend large sums renovating their homes. Alex and Claudine had recently spent a similar sum on an extension and new kitchen. They thought I was mad when I asked them how long it would take to payback. That’s because 90% of renovations are to improve homes, not reduce what they cost to run, as the VERD project found when it investigated homeowners renovation decisions.

And there’s lots of room to improve our experiences of heating at home. Our research has shown that two thirds of people complain of damp, drafts and overheating at home (even in winter!). Claudine complained she couldn’t open one of her windows because the lock was broken. Another opened so wide she was scared of being broken into in. They’d like to be able to have two showers at the same time to ease the morning rush hour without the water turning into a cold dribble. It would help if they could factor these low carbon upgrades into these home improvements.

Two chances to go low carbon 

Current boilers last between 10 and 15 years on average, so with 30 years between now and the 2050 Net Zero target, most households will have two opportunities to switch to low carbon when their boiler breaks and they need to buy a new heating system.

The key, where possible, is to make sure they’ve prepared their home and made energy efficiency upgrades in advance, so it’s easy to go low carbon when they do replace their boiler. That means they’ll need to know what low carbon energy network is planned in their area – be that hydrogen, district heat or simply using the existing electricity network for a heat pump.

Planning is key

We think there is a need for UK-wide planning for energy but at a local level – with Local Area Energy Planning engaging the local community, so they know what to prepare for. Imagine how annoyed Alex and Claudine would be if they spent time and money installing a heat pump, only to find out later their neighbours were connecting to a quicker cheaper option.

Home Energy Dynamics

But the truth is it’s quite difficult to know what’s the best thing to do in your home. I had experts back at base using our new Home Energy Dynamics (HED) model to explore the various alternatives. HED can take data from smart controls, heating systems, radiators and pipe networks, building fabric, and combine it with consumer and weather data, to choose the right low carbon heating upgrades for any given home. Alex used to be a builder so was more informed than most, but many people would struggle to navigate all these options, even with a model, then assemble a team to install the right range of products.

Net zero will be tough and decarbonising heat is the toughest part of the challenge. We think there is a way to do it, but we don’t think households should just be left to fend for themselves. Government and industry will need to play their roles.

We can do this …

After all we’ve done it before. In the 1970s only ¼ of homes had central heating, now practically everyone does. That’s because it was better than what we had. Innovation and economies of scale will drive down costs (as we’ve seen for solar power) and usher in exciting new solutions.

This is what’s working so well with electric vehicles. Governments have set automotive manufacturers tight carbon targets. Manufacturers are free to innovate and manage a complex supply chain to give people cars they love, without the carbon. It’s got to make more sense than expecting consumers to figure it out on their own.

We’ve been exploring a similar idea for heat and testing it in our Living Lab of smart homes around the UK. The concept is that people buy their heat as a service – paying for a warm home –rather than units of fuel and a heating system. Government can then set a carbon target and leave energy providers to figure out how to give people the heat service they want – without the carbon. Households simply choose their energy provider and service level. Their provider helps them improve the energy efficiency of their home (ideally during during any renovations) and they switch to low carbon heating when they replace their boiler.

It’s early days, but we’re already working with pioneering businesses and local authorities to trial the idea. And the initial signs are very promising.

Our Living Lab is here to help innovators with smart, low carbon ideas to accelerate to market. So get in touch if you want to find out how we can help.

Consumer Insight & Proposition Design

Energy market research, user experience (UX) and service design, and consumer trials. Helping innovators see beyond what people say to understand what they do.

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