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Boiler ban: A road map to renewable heating

Published on October 19, 2021

The second webinar in RSK’s Green Dialogues series was held on 9 September and brought together leaders in the energy and housing sectors to discuss the challenges facing the UK’s transition to renewable heating. Providing multiple perspectives on the issue of renewable heat, from energy generation to retrofitting, the panel discussion offered attendees a detailed analysis of the challenges to be faced in the move to low carbon heating and practical actions to bring forward change. If you missed it, the webinar is available for catch up now.

Following the UK government’s announcement of the ban on gas boilers in new build housing from 2025, questions surrounding the environmental cost of heating our homes have been brought into sharper focus. The boiler ban, combined with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions to meet the targets agreed in the Paris Climate Accords, raises a number of issues for heating. A challenge for housing developers and homeowners alike, the adoption of renewable heating is complex. Convening a panel of cross-industry experts on the matter, the Green Dialogues webinar offered clarity on the issues surrounding adoption, technologies and energy and proposed practical steps for actions to be taken now.

One of the key issues facing the UK’s move to renewable heating is a lack of public knowledge on the subject. In a survey commissioned by RSK group in August, of the 2000+ people who took part, only 13% were aware that heating is the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the UK. The lack of awareness observed in this survey, as Darren Snaith, Business Development Director at RSK, highlighted, presents the challenge of engaging homeowners with the importance of renewable heating. As home heating is the biggest carbon emitter, greater than cars (which the survey identified as the perceived greatest source), action needs to be taken now to begin reducing the impact of this on the environment. As well as highlighting the lack of awareness of heating as a carbon emitter, Darren also discussed a second outcome of the survey that showed a notable willingness to change to renewable sources. Upon understanding the environmental impact of their own gas boilers, respondents to the survey expressed a willingness to change to a renewable option.

With a clear desire to make changes to the way we heat our homes, it is important to understand what options are available as alternatives. As Jenni McDonnell MBE, Knowledge Transfer Manager at KTN, explained, there are a number of low carbon options, but these each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Heat pumps, hydrogen boilers and heat networks all offer the potential to transform our heating systems into a renewable matrix. However, these are costly; the technology is new and developing, which makes it expensive for the consumer to buy and install. Though running costs will be considerably reduced with systems such as heat pumps and heat networks, hydrogen-powered boilers are expensive to fuel. The expense is a reflection of the current lack of infrastructure to support these types of system and the delivery of different fuel types. We are not yet geared up to meeting the demand such a change would create. Jenni highlighted that, while alternatives to boilers are available, presently, it is equally important to improve energy efficiency.

This need to focus on the potential for immediate change, rather than waiting for new and developing technology to become accessible, was further emphasised by David Kemp, Sustainability and Growth Manager for Procure Plus. While there are alternative options for heating that do not involve gas boilers, much of this technology is newly emerging on the market. As a result, there is not the infrastructure to support mass adoption of hydrogen technology or heat network systems. With this in mind – that these technologies are on their way but are not yet here – efforts need to be made to make changes where we can, right away. Change now is the only way to remain within the carbon budgets allocated for achieving net zero emissions in the UK by 2050. Improving energy efficiency across the present housing stock first will not only reduce heat loss and waste but will also reduce the demand placed on our existing systems.

Focusing on actions that can be taken now offers a means of beginning a transition to renewable heating ahead of the introduction of large-scale boiler replacements. Improving the energy efficiency of the national housing stock through improved insulation, as discussed by Dan Meredith, Senior Manager at E.ON UK, will make an impact on the levels of energy required to heat homes and will in turn lower the associated emissions. A focus in this area is yet more significant when considering that 79% of respondents to the survey previously discussed would only install a heat pump in their home if they received financial support from the government to do so. A significant barrier to the uptake of these new, alternative heating technologies is their cost. Until the government supports these investments – the current £4000 grant scheme reflecting less than half the average cost of a heat pump – the cost will remain an obstacle to domestic adoption.

Adding to the challenge presented by cost, as Will Ray, Head of Sustainability at Clarion Group, discussed, the lack of consensus on definitions, aims and standards across the housing development and heating sectors is making efforts to achieve net-zero targets muddled and uncoordinated. With no clear and agreed plan on meeting emissions targets within the sector, reflected in a lack of plans for scaling up existing and new initiatives, cost and best practice, progress is being slowed.

It is clear from the perspectives offered by the cross-industry experts who took part in this panel that the road towards renewable heating in the UK is complex but continually evolving. Supporting the market to develop will inevitably see it accelerating of its own accord, making new renewable systems such as hydrogen boilers, heat pumps and heat networks more accessible to homeowners. In the meantime, rather than waiting for such a change to occur, meaningful action can be taken now to reduce the carbon footprint of our own households. Improving energy efficiency, even if by just one band on the energy performance certificate, will make a significant impact on reducing consumption, which will also reduce emissions.

As COP26 nears, RSK will further explore the key issues surrounding sustainability and our food chain in the Green Dialogues webinar “Net zero agriculture: The challenges facing our food chain” on 28 October 2021. The session will feature expert voices from the agriculture sphere discussing the increasing challenges facing the agricultural side of the food supply chain in targeting net zero. To sign up to this last webinar in the Green Dialogues series before COP26, and for details of other events hosted by RSK, please visit our website.

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