The home heat decarbonisation challenge

Britain’s two million rural homes will be the first to transition to low-carbon heating, but some are asking if the change will be fair. 

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With the possibility of a vaccine on the horizon, there is cause for some optimism in 2021 after a very difficult and challenging year for many. But while we have focused on Covid-19, one of the few things that has not changed is the vital need to tackle climate change and reduce national greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Our recovery from Covid-19 must be a green recovery, and there is an opportunity to make urgent progress on reducing carbon emissions from home heating, which contributes a significant 14 per cent to the UK total. This must be a just transition, with everyone playing their part, and making sure the effort is shared fairly.

The government aims to tackle rural off-gas grid homes first, where many homeowners, landlords and social housing managers will be both asked and required to make changes to the heating and energy efficiency of their properties this decade.

This is necessary to meet net zero, but it is easy for policymakers to underestimate the rural heat decarbonisation challenge. While rural homes situated off the gas grid represent just 8 per cent of all homes in Britain, we question the notion they are “low-hanging fruit,” or easier to decarbonise than urban homes.

The nature of Britain’s rural building stock means the transition to low-carbon heating will be more disruptive and expensive than in urban areas. Due to low building density, heat networks are unlikely to play a major role and hydrogen cannot be stored easily or transported off-grid. Good levels of energy efficiency – a prerequisite for some low-carbon heating solutions such as electric heat pumps – are absent in many rural homes, overlooked by successive government energy efficiency schemes.

Lots have solid walls; 78 per cent are detached; 47 per cent built before 1949; and the prevalence of fuel poverty is greater. Only 3 per cent of off-grid homes in England have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) — a rough measure of building energy efficiency – rating of C or higher.

Such homes are loosely referred to as “hard to treat”, as they are expensive and disruptive to upgrade their energy efficiency to the level required for heat pumps to work effectively and keep occupants warm; we estimate typical costs for such homes could reach over £30,000. This compares to a national average upgrade figure of £9,000, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). These upgrades are also disruptive for householders, some taking several weeks for the hardest to treat.

The Climate Assembly UK – made up of people from all walks of life to discuss how the UK can achieve net zero by 2050 – emphasised the need to minimise disruption in the home from upgrades and offer flexibility and choice to householders. Our recent YouGov survey of rural off-grid householders found 77 per cent already thought government prioritises urban concerns over rural in energy and climate policy. We must fully take account of these sentiments for policy to succeed.

A rural first approach will lead to a slower pace of decarbonisation than a national approach. There are “no regrets” homes both on and off grid which are ready right now for low carbon heating solutions, such as electric heat pumps and hybrid heat pumps, and available bioenergy solutions for homes where alternatives are needed. So why restrict activity to off-grid, which will slow and increase the cost of deployment? We should put the right technology in the right home, right now, regardless of where that home is.

At Calor we have been providing energy to rural homes and businesses off the gas grid for over 85 years and we supply many hard to treat rural homes. We do not see them as low-hanging fruit. To help these homes decarbonise, we have already started our transition to net zero, supplying renewable bioLPG (a direct, drop-in replacement for conventional LPG) since 2018.

Our commitment is to supply 100 per cent renewable energy products by 2040. Independent analysis suggests bioLPG, either in standalone boilers or in combination with a heat pump in a hybrid system, will be the most affordable way to decarbonise around 44 per cent of rural homes currently heated by highly polluting heating oil. BioLPG provides high temperature heating and effectively heats even poorly insulated homes, providing instant carbon savings, while their energy efficiency is improved to the extent it is economically and technically feasible.

Heat pumps generally require good levels of insulation to heat effectively. If heat pumps are installed in the wrong home, occupants may not be warm enough, and may have bigger energy bills than they were expecting. There are also space, planning and technical restrictions which will further limit heat pump installations. The reality is many off-grid homes will never be suitable for standalone electric heat pumps so alternative low-carbon heating options are vital to achieve net zero.

These points are not being fully debated among policymakers and government risks picking winners when it should focus on outcomes. The government thinks about 80 per cent of off-grid homes are suitable for heat pumps, and the CCC suggests around 50 per cent. Current policies favour biomass boilers burning imported wood pellets as filling much of this gap, although their negative impact on air quality means we should deploy these sparsely. The CCC see hybrid heat pumps, in combination with biofuels, as a key solution. The reality is we will need all these options, including bioLPG.

Rural homeowners and especially those on heating oil, will need significant financial and technical assistance to help them on this journey. The government needs to urgently bring rural energy efficiency levels up to scratch and expand the number of technologies it supports through Green and Clean Home Grants to include bioLPG.

The government’s forthcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy, which will set the policy direction to decarbonise our homes over the course of the next two decades, needs to treat rural off gas grid households fairly. If we want to get it right for the people living in Britain’s two million rural homes off the gas grid, we need all options available for this diverse range of properties. For many, bioLPG is not only the best value, but also the fairest way to do it.

Andy Parker is head of strategy and corporate affairs at Calor.

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