Normalising low carbon heat on the road to net zero
Inspired by the legislated net zero target, ambitions for a green recovery, and in the lead up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), the noise around heat decarbonisation is undeniably different. Despite no fundamental change to the heat market and technology mix, with the conventional boiler market having grown over the past few years, it finally feels that we are on the cusp of material change.
Progress in tackling carbon emissions from domestic heating is politically tricky in the sense that it requires a change in public behaviour, with people potentially having to pay more for heat – which is generally perceived as a basic good. Understandably, governments have historically kicked the can rather than incur political risk, but it appears that tides are now eventually turning.
We are seeing recognition from the Government that meeting carbon budgets and climate targets means taking heat decarbonisation seriously, with the right signals from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) around the low carbon heating transition.
High hopes are now pinned on the upcoming Heat in Buildings Strategy to outline a plan of action for the years to come.
Innovation across industry
In anticipation of policy-driven change, views have shifted across the industry, and we’re seeing significant innovation and movement from incumbent players, including heating system manufacturers and fuel suppliers, who are now investing in low carbon technology.
The heating installer market now appears to be ripe for innovation with a range of industry players, certification bodies and associations actively working to upskill installers to allow them to deliver greater volume of demand. A skilled installer base will of course be essential to the Government’s ambitions to roll out 600,000 heat pumps into homes per year by 2028. Trained installers are also key to educating consumers on the options and benefits of low carbon heating systems so they can make a decision right for their home.
Progressive policy from Government and action across industry to upskill supply chains will be futile without consumer engagement. Heat pumps have not currently received the same buy-in as other low carbon technologies, such as electric vehicles, and are yet to be recognised by the average consumer as a desirable product. Only 8% of UK consumers are aware of heat pumps as an option, according to a ComRes survey; and only 14% are willing to change their heating system to help climate change. This will need to change to deliver the shift to low carbon heating in line with Government ambitions. The survey also tells us that in the UK, monthly bills reduction is the prime factor to switch to low carbon heat, which means that the cost of carbon will need to be gradually reflected into the cost of fuel in the domestic sector.
It is important to note that policy has a key role to play in changing consumer behaviour by enabling people to become acquainted with new technology. Regulation like the Future Homes Standard, for example, can help to deliver wider uptake of heat pumps in new builds where low carbon heat is cost effective already, meaning that people can benefit from the system without having to make a decision to install it themselves.
It is not unreasonable to believe that public perceptions can change. Electric vehicles are a key example, having only recently started trending and moving away from the expensive, niche and almost ridiculous product they were once perceived as. This shows that attitudes can change and develop to embrace new low carbon technologies with enthusiasm.
Strengthening the case of low carbon heat
I am hopeful that the work of industry and government will continue to strengthen the case for low carbon heat in line with climate goals, by ensuring it is more attractive for consumers. We must take heart in the successful development of other low carbon markets, such as electric vehicles, and continue to push low carbon heat as a key factor on the road to net zero. Although the change required is significant, it is not impossible.