The largest challenge to achieve net-zero by 2050: Decarbonising heat

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© Victor Labzin

Professor Martin Freer, Director of Birmingham Energy Institute, University of Birmingham, details his thoughts on overcoming our largest challenge to achieve net-zero by 2050

Heat is the largest single source of UK carbon emissions, accounting for over one-third of the country’s output, whilst decarbonising heat stands as one of the most significant challenges in reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

To overcome this challenge, the UK Government is developing a Heat and Building Strategy and introducing new standards such as the requirement for new-build homes to be future-proofed with low carbon heating, but this focus cannot just be on newly-built properties. A policy report from the University of Birmingham and the CBI suggests that 25 million homes must be converted to low-carbon heating if we are to achieve the UK’s net-zero targets.

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Decarbonisation of heat in 25 million UK homes presents a further challenge as heat is generated home-by-home. The diversity of housing types, standards of thermal insulation and grid connectivity means that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It will be vital for business, government, regulators and communities to work together to shape the policies and delivery mechanisms that will be needed.

Technology options

Potential heating solutions include the deployment of heat pumps, hydrogen boilers, district heating and others. Heat pumps might source their heat from the ground or air and even be of a hybrid generation which continue to exploit the combustion of natural gas. Wide-scale deployment of heat pumps would place a significant demand on national electricity generation and local electricity networks, with both requiring extension and reinforcement. Moreover, installation and operation of heat pumps will require significant enhancements in the training of heating system installers and changes in customers’ expectations. Generation of heat by a heat pump, unlike the immediacy of a gas boiler, is slow and steady. Installation of heat pumps needs careful design of the whole heating system and thermal insulation. Customers will need to change the way that they expect to heat their homes. Hydrogen has the potential to be simpler in that injection of hydrogen into the gas grid uses existing infrastructure, though not all of it might be suitable.

Also, a hydrogen boiler is not so different from a conventional gas boiler. One very significant challenge is to generate sufficient low-carbon, low-cost hydrogen. District heating, on the other hand, has been utilised for decades, if not millennia, and there are many national district heating schemes which typically have been commercially viable in high population density regions. Increasingly, the challenge for district heating is to deliver low-carbon heat, as typically generation is by combined heat and power plants burning natural gas. Whatever the heating solution, it is vital that it is delivered in tandem with improvements to thermal insulation and energy efficiency in the UK’s homes.

Local delivery mechanisms

The mechanism by which the new heating solutions will be delivered may also be complex. This is likely to be market-driven with a strong element of customer choice, but for customers to have a choice, the right infrastructure has to be in place – that’s to say the local electricity grid must have the capacity, a hydrogen gas grid developed or a district heating network installed. It is highly unlikely that this will be the case and, therefore, hence choice may be restricted to a particular type of heat pump or manufacturer’s hydrogen boiler. There may be a level of local mandating over which heat technology should be adopted and certainly to make this all work, a level of local planning.

Development of local and regional plans is essential to ensure that advantage is taken of existing infrastructure with the least expensive and lowest impact solutions delivered. These plans give industry the confidence to invest and they can be integrated into a national delivery plan, which then establishes the scale for additional electricity and hydrogen generation.

A key element of getting all of this working will be developing large-scale pilot projects to build consumer confidence, establishing programmes that can deliver and provide a scale of opportunity that allows businesses to invest in manufacturing the heat pumps and low carbon boilers. At present, only a handful of heat pumps are installed per year and there is a need for a massive scale-up to millions. In addition, there is a dearth of qualified low-carbon heat engineers and thus a need for a massive skills programme.

The need for a National Delivery Body

In light of this extraordinary complexity, the recent CBI-University of Birmingham heat policy commission, chaired by Lord Bilimoria, recommended that there needs to be a National Delivery Body for heat. This National Delivery Body (NDB) would be an independent, impartial body working with government on creating, coordinating and delivering an overarching national decarbonisation of heat programme. Crucially, the programme should be locally formulated and delivered by local authorities, who will align their own local and energy plan with the national programme. Membership of this body would be drawn from industry, independent experts, organisations such as Ofgem and consumer groups, and be led by a chair with responsibility for reporting to government.

This would be underpinned by an accord creating cross-party agreement and commitment and forming the basis for industry to agree to work collectively to deliver the heat transition. It would be the responsibility of the NDB to ensure that the scale of manufacturing, delivery of training and skills and the coordination of regional plans into a national delivery plan. Given the scale and complexity of delivering the decarbonisation of heat and the incredibly short timescales involved, it is unlikely that a transition to low-carbon heating can be delivered otherwise.

Of course, a National Delivery Body can only have limited impact without some type of delivery arm. A National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat (NCDH) is proposed which would co-ordinate the delivery of skills and training, working with industry to support the scale-up of manufacturing and the development of UK supply chains. The NCDH would establish standards and standardisation, coordinating several national pilots and helping to secure finance to deliver such projects.

It has been proposed that the NCDH would be based at Tyseley Energy Park, in Birmingham. The Midlands is the home for many boiler manufacturers, has organisations such as the Energy Research Accelerator, the Energy Systems Catapult and the Manufacturing Technology Centre – part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. Tyseley Energy Park has sources of low-carbon electricity, waste heat from energy from waste plants and plans to scale-up hydrogen production. It also sits in a community with some of the poorest national housing and significant levels of energy poverty. It is such communities that need to be at the front of the levelling-up queue.

It is clear that the level of co-ordination afforded by a National Delivery Body and a National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat will be essential if the UK is going to get even close to delivering its commitment to net-zero by 2050.

*Please note: This is a commercial profile

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