Difficult steps on the road to net zero
While it’s a relief to see the government’s Heat and Building Strategy published at last, there are some disappointments in it for the building services sector. For example, the phase out (not ban) of new gas boiler installations is pushed back to 2035, which some may see as a softening on fossil fuels.
But perhaps this indicates government’s recognition of the enormous task at hand, particularly where our ageing and poorly-insulated housing stock is concerned. And the £5,000 heat pump grants are not overly generous either. However, looking on the bright side, the financial support may help to get the ball rolling with around 90,000 subsidised heat pump installations over three years.
The Strategy generally follows the government’s 2020 Ten Point Plan in that it puts heat pumps at the heart of its immediate heating decarbonisation plans, while keeping options open for a broader application of hydrogen boilers and heat networks.
There has been discussion in the industry that frames our heating future as a choice between ‘heat pumps vs hydrogen’. But I think that an ‘either-or’ approach is distracting and unhelpful. As any engineer will tell you, no single technology can solve this challenge and we need as many options as possible to meet the requirements of our existing building stock. It is good to see government recognise that. It is also important not to dismiss any option out of hand.
One example of this is building integrated photovoltaics (PVs). This tech is mentioned in the new Strategy document, as government recognises the important role it can play in supporting the UK’s move to a ‘smart’ electricity grid.
I think that PVs were poorly served by the last government scheme (FiTs) that ended abruptly, pulling the rug from under the opportunity for greater PV adoption. Now, I think that any householder or business facing the alarming rise in energy costs of October 2021 would be tempted by the option to switch to a heating system that is also powered by the building it heats.
Another advantage of PVs is the relatively low price. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the price of solar panels has seen a price drop of around 80% between 2010 and 2019. At the same time, the technology has become easier to install even on domestic properties. An added benefit has been the recent development of battery storage that is increasingly accessible at small scale and makes home-generated electricity even more practical for use with a heat pump heating system, for example.
A big issue that needs to be faced is energy pricing. For domestic customers, electricity is still around five times more expensive per kilowatt hour (21p per kWh) than gas (4p per kWh) based on the current Ofgem cap. It sounds as though government is making moves to change the balance of this pricing, but these are hard times for many households and businesses, so it’s going to be hard to sell the idea of increased gas prices while so many homeowners still depend on it.
Ultimately, the road to net zero will include some difficult steps for all of us. The public is now much more aware of the importance of tackling the climate emergency, so there may never be a better time to start being open about the issue of costs. It’s better to be up-front with people about these things, rather than beat around the bush.
While we are focused on net zero as our environmental goal, there are also geopolitical implications relating to our continued use of gas that might persuade people to swallow some higher costs now for a lower-cost, lower-carbon future. There is no getting away from the fact that security of energy supply impacts on all of us in our businesses and our homes.
Rising energy prices are hitting Europe hard and this has not gone unnoticed in certain quarters. Russian President Vladimir Putin (who won’t be attending COP26) has kindly offered to send more gas to calm the turmoil in Europe’s energy markets. One can only wonder what quid pro quo that might entail, but I would much rather invest in PVs and swap out my gas boiler than find out.