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Buildings and heating – Are we thinking carefully enough about decarbonisation strategies?

Buildings and heating – Are we thinking carefully enough about decarbonisation strategies?

Buildings and heating – Are we thinking carefully enough about decarbonisation strategies?

Posted: 12/01/2022

With COP26 in full flow, net-zero is the word on everyone’s lips. But is our strategy to get there a sound one?

COP26 is shaping up to be a do or die summit in the race to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius. As host, the UK is looking to set the standard by committing to new nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that enshrine new carbon emissions targets into law.

Whatever wheels the UK puts into motion in the push for net-zero, new strategies to address the nation’s energy consumption are needed. Heating homes and businesses account for almost a quarter of all carbon emissions in the UK. A strategy that decarbonises heating will go a long way to help us reach the carbon targets we’ve set for ourselves.

The heating and building strategy

In the run-up to the COP, the UK government released its heat and buildings strategy. While the majority of the document aims to set out how the government will cut carbon emissions from the nation’s 30 million homes, the particulars that hit the headlines were centred on air source heat pumps.

Gas boilers are dead, long live heat pumps

The government plans to phase out the installation of gas boilers by 2035, with heat networks and air source heat pumps expected to do the heavy lifting with regards to heating. The UK government has announced that homeowners will be eligible for £5,000 grants to install heat pumps instead of gas boilers.

The cost to the homeowner

It’s fair to say, much is resting on the efficacy of heat pumps and widespread uptake of the technology. There are a few problems, however. To start with, heat pumps are expensive. Costing between £6,000 and £18,000 depending on the size of the property, they average out at about £10,000 per unit. This is vastly more expensive than current gas boilers.

The government grant is designed to try and soften this financial blow and while it sounds good in principle, it’s still going to leave the majority of homeowners paying upwards of £5,000 to upgrade to a heat pump. These costs are expected to decrease as the technology becomes more mainstream, however.

Octopus energy is already vowing to slash the prices of heat pumps by 2022, bringing the cost somewhere in line with gas boilers. If achieved, this would increase the viability of the technology from an economic perspective.

As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Is there enough cash in the kitty

The size of the government pot put aside for heat pump grants has been criticised by many. To make the carbon reductions necessary for our 2030 and 2050 targets, heat pump installations are going to need to hit 600,000 per year by 2028. Given that the grant only has funding enough to offer 30,000 heat pump upgrades a year for three years, you’d be forgiven for thinking the government have cocked up their sums…

Are the practicalities of our decarbonisation strategy being overlooked?

GLD is currently working with clients on a public sector funded decarbonisation scheme, so we’re no stranger to the practical considerations of decarbonisation strategies. It’s one thing to see the potential of air source heat pumps, but another to carefully consider all the variables that need to be understood to make the technology a success.

Like many technological step changes, things are complicated. We can’t just slip into the trap of thinking we can rip boilers out and throw heat pumps in expecting it to be smooth sailing. We have to consider all the variables, including:

  • Current building infrastructure
  • Funding
  • Timescales
  • Material availability
  • Fabrication upgrades
  • Building age

Building infrastructure

Whether the building in question is residential, commercial, or public, the mechanical and electrical installation already in place will have a large bearing on how easy the transition to an alternative heating source will be.

For example, for a heat pump to be viable in larger properties, a 3 phase electrical supply will most probably be required. This will need to be considered, particularly for larger residential properties where 1 phase electrical supplies are the norm. Upgrading the supply is likely to add time and expenditure to an installation procedure that’s already financially intensive and long-winded.

With gas boilers, the hot water pipe and radiator systems see a flow and return temperature of between 60-80 degrees. The majority of systems currently in place are sized to suit this. For air source heat pumps, the most economic solutions run at 45-55 degrees. This would mean that the radiator systems in the majority of homes will need to be replaced with larger units. Alternatively, the output for the heat pumps would need to be increased to suit the radiator and pipework system currently in place.

The problem with this is that both options entail greater costs and a greater scope of work. To run a heat pump at a higher temperature requires significantly more energy, not to mention the additional cost to the heat pump plant. Likewise, installing new radiator systems is itself an expensive job requiring more materials and manpower.

Buildings that are over 100 years old won’t have the internal insulation structures needed for heat pumps to be effective. This would require considerable internal works to rectify, yet again adding to the cost and timescale of the project.

When it comes to commercial or public properties, the space required for heat pump upgrades can be the cause of considerable headaches. If plant rooms don’t have sufficient space, extensions or indeed external plant rooms may be required. This means you’re adding building work on top of mechanical and electrical installation, vastly increasing the complexity of the project.

Funding and timescales

We’ve already discussed the pitfalls of government funding for heat pumps in residential properties, but what about more generalised funding for decarbonisation initiatives.

The Salix decarbonisation funding scheme is an extremely positive move towards helping many publicly owned buildings achieve energy efficiency and reduced carbon output. However, doing what’s needed to qualify for the funding is not a straightforward task for many councils and contractors. The short timescales many funding bodies operate on can provide significant headaches for organisations eager to make use of the funding pot.

We’ve already seen that the process of installing heat pumps can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. The tight timescales required for funding from schemes like the Salix Decarbonisation Fund leave councils and contractors with a lot to design and not a lot of time to install it.

Fabrication upgrades

Fabrication upgrades are often overlooked as a viable means of reducing a building’s heating requirements. Insulate Britain is currently disrupting our roads to put house insulation on top of the government’s green energy agenda.

Whilst the activist organisation have been plastered across our screens for the best part of a month, the specifics of their message to the government has not. They want the government to take responsibility for insulating all social housing by 2025 and to provide the funding to insulate all 30 million of the UK’s homes by 2030.

It’s easy to dismiss their message on the back of their disruptive activity, but it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Better build and fabrication standards will make a big difference to the carbon output of homes. What’s more, better insulation is a prerequisite for heat pumps to be as effective as gas boilers.

What’s strange is that there seems to be very little being said of better build and insulation standards from public policy decision-makers. Even some of the decarbonisation funding bodies demonstrate patchy attitudes to its implementation. On some of the projects GLD has been party to, better fabrication standards have amounted to upgrading windows; an incredibly important part of the process. However, there’s little mention of other retrofitting activities that could vastly improve insulation and heat efficiency.

Building age

Finally, one thing that isn’t being considered by many is the lifecycles of the buildings we’re working with. Being that considerable work is required to get some buildings in a state where carbon friendly heating solutions can be installed, it begs the question of whether the building has enough life left in it to support the investment.

This ties into a question that no one is asking in the mad, albeit much-needed dash for net-zero. Namely, are we thinking carefully enough about the whole picture? It may be that it’s better economically and environmentally to demolish certain buildings and build them back better, allowing for the structure to be purpose-built for new heating and energy solutions.

What are the questions we need to be asking?

The push for net-zero is the world’s biggest challenge and our actions will have reverberations throughout history; particularly if we don’t get it right. While it’s important that we make changes and we make them presently, we still have to answer questions about how to use the solutions available to us.

  • Is it a matter of speed over everything else?
  • Are we willing to change certain aspects of our way of life to achieve net-zero, or are we committed only in so far as we can enjoy all the trappings of modern life we currently have?
  • Should we jump in with alternative heating solutions in complicated cases, or should we take a step back and consider what’s best on a case-by-case basis?
  • Are heat pumps the solution for every building?
  • Is there a benefit to short time scales for funding, or would giving organisations more breathing space improve carbon emission outcomes?

These are all questions that aren’t being answered by the people we look to for answers. A single-minded, bullish push for better carbon outcomes is needed, but we should also be careful that our tunnel vision doesn’t obscure other, perhaps even better solutions from view.

If you’re looking for an expert to help you navigate the world of sustainable heating, get in touch with GLD technical consulting today and we’ll walk you through it step by step.