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Boiler ban: Plotting the UK’s transition to renewable heating

Published on September 08, 2021

Only 13% of people are aware that heating their homes is the biggest contributor to UK emissions: Dan Meredith of energy provider E.ON explains what needs to happen to achieve a shift to net zero heat

 On 9 September, RSK will hold the next webinar in its ‘Green Dialogues’ series – ‘Boiler ban’. We will invite a panel of experts from across the sustainable built environment space to examine some of the challenges facing the sector as it transitions to low-emissions heat.

It is estimated that about 25 million homes in the UK are heated by gas, but the government wants to encourage people to replace their gas boilers with heat-pump systems or other low-carbon alternatives as part of meeting its net-zero target. It has signalled that it will seek to ban gas-fired boilers in new homes from 2025 and in existing houses by the mid-2030s.

To inform the debate, RSK surveyed more than 2000 people across the UK in what is believed to be the first major public survey on the issue of boiler replacement and discovered that only 13% of people were aware that heating their homes is the biggest contributor to UK carbon emissions. However, when informed of this, three quarters said they were concerned and, in principle, would change the way their home is heated to reduce the impact on the environment.

However, the survey further revealed that the vast majority of people would only replace their gas boilers with a low-carbon heat pump system if they received substantial grant support from the government. More than one in three say they would need a grant of more than 50% of the cost to consider installing a heat pump.

In this question and answer session, we asked our ‘Boiler ban’ panellist Dan Meredith, Senior Manager from the energy provider E.ON UK, to share his expert knowledge on why heating is such a ‘hot topic’ in conversations on the climate crisis and how we can effectively transition to low carbon heating technologies in the future.

  1. Why is heating homes such a big contributor of greenhouse gas emissions and what are the alternative, green energy sources?

The UK’s homes emit more carbon than all of the UK’s power stations put together.

Emissions from home heating are so high because about 90% of homes are heated by gas boilers. In order to hit the UK’s target of net zero by 2050, every single home will need to have a different source of heating by 2035 at the very latest.

At E.ON, we believe that a range of technologies will play a part in decarbonising the way we heat our homes. We work on the broad assumption that home heating of the future will be made up of roughly 60% heat pumps, 20% district heat networks and 20% hydrogen.

However, different technologies are at different stages of development. We know that heat pumps as a technology work right now, and we also know that decarbonising home heating needs to start right away. The government has set an ambitious target to install 600,000 heat pumps per year in homes by 2028, so action is required now if we are to hit that target.

  1. How are energy suppliers responding to the changes in the building regulations to prohibit gas boilers in new developments from 2025?

E.ON fully supports the Future Homes Standard. The sooner we start building homes designed for the future – with better heating and cooling, and the infrastructure needed for electric vehicle (EV) charging and the other new technologies that homes and buildings will need – the better.

E.ON expects to install more than three quarters of a million solar panels in new homes over the next five years. We are ramping up our workforce and supply chain to ensure we are in a great position to continue to lead on heat-pump and EV-charger installations.

  1. What are the trends for low-carbon heat in the new build and existing homeowner sectors in the UK? Is a leading technology emerging to replace gas- or oil-fired boilers?

With new builds, heat pumps work well. The building can be designed to work with a heat pump from the start, as well as being properly designed for more efficient heating and cooling.

In urban areas, district heat networks will also be critical. Right now, E.ON supplies about 30,000 customers across Britain via direct heating schemes and heat networks – mostly in London and other cities.

E.ON is investing more than £4 million to decarbonise an extension to our Citigen district heating network in the centre of London by using heat recovery and a large ground source heat pump. When installed, the heat pump will supply low-carbon heating and cooling to thousands of homes in the City of London as well as landmark sites such as Smithfield Market and the Museum of London. It is a real flagship project for the way in which cities can effectively decarbonise their heating.

  1. What are the main difficulties for the energy supply sector in responding to these legislative changes? What else needs to be done?

One of the most important factors in the UK energy sector and wider industry’s transition to net zero is long-term policy certainty. To drive the investment needed to really create long-term, sustainable, green jobs and bring manufacturing supply chains for heat pumps and other technologies to the UK, industry and investors need to be confident that there is long-term demand that they can rely on. Boom and bust cycles in areas such as energy efficiency have proved detrimental to efforts to decarbonise homes in the past and have really cooled investor confidence in the sector.

It is also important that we learn lessons from schemes that have proven difficult to implement, such as the Green Deal and the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme. We know how to create major schemes that deliver real outcomes at scale. E.ON is often involved in the schemes that work. We must learn from and expand them instead of trying to recreate the wheel.

Most importantly, the government should publish its Heat and Buildings Strategy and the Treasury’s Net Zero Review as soon as possible – and they should be honest and ambitious. Then we can begin to see a roadmap to tackling some of these bigger challenges.

  1. How are current schemes such as Affordable Warmth for insulating homes better performing in practice? What else is needed to create the shift to low-carbon heating? Are there enough engineers to install and maintain the new technologies?

Installation numbers for energy efficiency schemes such as ECO have suffered in recent years owing to boom and bust in funding. We are pleased to see the government boosting the ECO 4 fund to £1 billion for 2022. The problem is that funding really only exists to help the poorest households. That is the right place to start because the transition to net zero has to work for, and serve everyone. That is exactly why we need schemes designed to support low to middle income households, too.

Brexit and COVID-19 have had detrimental impacts on installer numbers for energy efficiency measures and, looking ahead to the mass roll-out of heat pumps, it is clear that more thought needs to go into developing the skills base. There are currently fewer than 1,000 qualified heat-pump installers in the UK, but the Heat Pump Association (HPA) estimates that we will need more than 25,000 installers by 2028 to meet the government’s target of 600,000 installations per year. That is a twenty-five-fold increase in less than seven years.

Such an increase will require attractive propositions for gas boiler engineers to reskill and some confidence that the government will not flip-flop on its policy in future, so it is worth an engineer’s time and effort to reskill.

We support the HPA’s call for a proposed a £1.5-million fund to go towards a voucher scheme for the first 5,000 installers to go through a new qualification course to become heat-pump technicians. E.ON has also called on the government to introduce more level 2 to 4 apprenticeships in areas that would help support a growth in the number of technicians, for example, engineering and design qualifications.

  1. How can we persuade existing homeowners to invest in greener heating (and potentially, cooling) technologies?

Tackling the able-to-pay market is crucial to decarbonising the homes of the UK, but so far there has been little support for homeowners to make the switch. E.ON supports several proposals for helping homeowners to decarbonise, including

  • 0% VAT on energy-efficiency measures
  • Stamp-duty or council-tax rebates for homes with high Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings
  • attractive green mortgage offers, similar to Germany’s KfW offering.

Most importantly, we need to see a comprehensive building renovation passport scheme for all buildings, as proposed by the Federation of Master Builders. A building renovation passport would sit alongside efficiency standards, such as Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) or EPC, and provide bespoke, detailed information for each building regarding the options and measures needed for each individual building to reach net-zero emissions over a timescale of 10 to 15 years. This will provide clear guidance to each building owner so they can plan when to make the required upgrades.

In the run-up to COP26, the RSK ‘Green Dialogues’ webinars are bringing together industry experts to discuss key sustainability issues. We have already focused on changes to transport in our ‘Ditch the car’ webinar, in which our expert panel debated the future of sustainable transport and whether to ‘ditch the car’ in efforts to achieve a net-zero future.

We will explore further key issues relating to tackling climate change in our upcoming RSK Green Dialogue webinar ‘Can we rewild land in our inner cities?’ (7 October 2021). This webinar will feature leaders in the rewilding movement as they discuss the challenges and benefits of rewilding high-density cities.

We are solutions focused, and we want to continue driving the conversations and ideas that will enable industry to play its part in tackling the climate crisis. To keep up with our activities and sign up for our future #GreenDialogues events, visit our website here.

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