Ministers must come forward with stringent new plans for low-carbon heating, as targets to insulate homes and generate more power from offshore wind are inadequate and sales of gas boilers showed a record rise last year, energy experts warned.
At current rates, it will take 700 years for the UK to move to low-carbon heating, and at least 19,000 homes a week must be upgraded between now and 2050. There was a record rise last year of 1.8% in the number of new gas boilers installed, showing that the UK is going in the wrong direction.
Government plans will see only about 12,500 homes in total installed with low-carbon heat pumps, according to a report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).
“We must move away from this situation where the government is sitting on its hands,” said Robert Gross, director of UKERC and co-author of the report.
The prime minister pledged this week that offshore wind would power and heat every home by 2030, with 40GW of turbines. But those plans are geared towards existing levels of electricity usage, UKERC experts pointed out. Demand for electricity is set to double as drivers switch to electric cars and as we cease to heat our homes with fossil fuels. According to one estimate, heating the UK’s homes alone would require 67GW of offshore wind power.
About £3bn will be given out in green home grants for insulation and other energy efficiency measures under plans unveiled as part of the Covid-19 economic rescue package in the summer. That will not be enough to make a significant change, however, and must be the start of a longer-term effort if targets are to be met, according to UKERC, which calculates that the heat and buildings sector will need £10bn of investment each year to meet the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Jan Rosenow of the University of Oxford, co-author of the report, said: “The problem is that [the £3bn] is one-off and that is not good enough – you have to have that level of funding, and more, for a sustained period of time to give the supply chain certainty, and get quality and availability in the long term.”
He warned that previous policy U-turns had created uncertainty for suppliers, leaving installers of insulation and low-carbon systems in limbo and preventing the development of an adequate supply chain and industry in the UK.
Senior figures in government, including the prime minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, are said to be enthusiastic about the prospects for hydrogen as a fuel, and ministers are expected to unveil a new hydrogen strategy as part of an energy white paper due later this year.
Hydrogen boilers have been touted as an alternative to gas boilers that could use the existing gas distribution network.
But it would be a mistake to put too much store by an unproven technology, UKERC warned. Drastic reductions in carbon dioxide from home heating are needed in this decade, and it is likely to take at least that long to conduct trials.
“It is remarkable how this has emerged as a proposition,” said Gross. “Evidence of the feasibility of using hydrogen at a large scale needs to be improved.”
Instead, ministers should focus on district heating schemes and “pump-priming” – subsidising in the short term to bring costs down – of low-carbon, air-source heat pumps. These pumps are barely used in the UK at present, and few installers have the skills needed as a result. But with investment, the costs could come down rapidly.
Present policies have been “consumer-led”, relying on people installing insulation and making the switch to low-carbon heating themselves. This approach has clearly failed, UKERC said, and must be replaced with a mix of regulation and financial incentives.
Gross said the wholesale change needed in the way Britons heat their homes was “not unprecedented”, as people changed from coal heating in the 1970s.
A business department spokesperson said: “We are already taking comprehensive action to drive down emissions from heating on our path to net zero by 2050. Last week we launched the £2bn green homes grant, which will improve energy efficiency and support the installation of low-carbon heating in 600,000 homes, supporting 100,000 jobs while driving down emissions.
“From 2025 all new homes will be required to have low-carbon heating as standard. We are exploring how to make the gas network cleaner through the green gas levy and have just announced plans for even more of our electricity to be provided by clean, green wind power.”