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UK must clarify gas heating future by mid-2020s – key advisors demand

CCC report demands that the future of the UK gas grid be decided by around 2025, with low carbon heating technology being mandatory for any new or replacement appliances by a decade later

Government must clearly decide the future of the UK gas grid by the middle of the next decade to help address a range of concerns over the viability of its zero-carbon heating aims 

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a body that plays an influential role in helping steer government policy, has warned that Whitehall is behind schedule on addressing a range of factors needed to meet now outdated targets to curb carbon emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels.

Having recently passed commitments to fully eliminate carbon from across industry, buildings and infrastructure by the same 2050 deadline, a new CCC report has argued that government has delivered only one of 25 policies seen as being critical to realising emissions targets are met.

Echoing wider industry concerns on the current lack of clear government policy on a range of key issues such as the possible role of hydrogen and biomethane for heating, the CCC said an urgent priority for any UK government must be a definitive low carbon heating strategy.

The committee’s findings said a successful strategy must include clear paths to improve energy efficiency in all UK buildings, while determining how exactly the UK can phase out the need for fossil fuels to heat off-grid homes over the course of the 2020s.

The greener gas challenge

In the medium to long-term, the CCC warned of the need to determine the future role of the UK’s centralised gas grid by around 2025, while also ensuring that any new or replacement heating systems must be deemed as low carbon technologies by 2035. This would potentially require drastic uptake of electric appliances such as heat pumps by 2035.

Ensuring sufficient amounts of hydrogen can be produced in a sustainable form will also be vital to meeting the 2050 UK net zero ambitions. The CCC argued that significant volumes of gas would need to be produced by 2030 in a number of industrial clusters that would include power generation, depot-based transport and for the purpose of being injected into the UK gas network.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth NGO have warned that a switch towards hydrogen gas use for heating was not necessarily a like for like carbon neutral replacement for natural gas. This was particularly if the gas is produced through Steam Methane Reforming.

Mike Childs, head of science for the NGO, has previously told H&V News that home-grown renewable energy and hydrogen produced from water would be important steps to decarbonise heat in a viable manner.

A lack of detail

Despite ongoing calls for a widescale transformation strategy for buildings, infrastructure and energy generation, a clear plan that begins to formalise a viable net zero transformation in the UK is yet to come to fruition, according to the CCC’s report.

A lack of clarity on the government’s intentions and plans to transform heat in line with several decarbonisation targets has been a longstanding issue that was compounded by limited support for specific technologies, according to the report.

The CCC said, “Over ten years after the Climate Change Act was passed, there is still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems or improving the efficiency of the housing stock, while no large-scale trials have begun for either heat pumps or hydrogen. The low-carbon skills gap has yet to be addressed.”

Criticism was also raised by the CCC over the limited amount of work to introduce carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. This is work that the report has argued is expected to be crucial to realise the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. These projects had not started in a meaningful way within the UK.

The report added, “While global progress has also been slow, there are now 43 large-scale projects operating or under development around the world, but none in the UK.”

The CCC said it recognised publication of the ‘Clean Growth – Transforming Heating’ strategy update by the Department of Business, energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) late last year, which saw the department commit to several milestones such as publishing a ‘Heat Roadmap’ by 2020.

Commitments in the latest Spring Statement by current Chancellor Philip Hammond to increase green gas within the national grid were noted by the CCC as a sign of government understanding of the need to decarbonise heat.

However, vital decisions were yet to be taken with regard to the types of gas that might be included in a transformed zero carbon network. Biomethane and hydrogen are currently being looked at by industry and policy makers as possible solutions.

A similar concern about limited details on policy intent was identified by the CCC around the role of heat networks at a national level, despite work being undertaken to set out frameworks on potential consumer protections and areas of investment in lower carbon innovations.

It was also unclear particularly on how fossil fuel heating could be replaced in off grid properties, such as via support for heat pumps, from 2021, the report added.

Another key example of limited support from Whitehall towards domestic decarbonisation given by the committee was in the lack of clarity for ensuring all domestic properties in the UK meet at least EPC band C standards by 2035.

Alongside a lack of policy on energy efficiency, a well-documented lack of enforcement of existing building standards would also need to be addressed, according to the CCC. Critical findings from an Independent Review of Building Regulations by Dame Judith Hackitt last year called for a range of reforms around regulations and enforcement that are currently being considered in a range of ongoing or planned consultations.

The report added, “In a range of areas (such as CCS, low-carbon heating, electric vehicles, afforestation), the technologies are available but an effective policy framework to drive extensive deployment is lacking. This will need to change rapidly if the UK is to get on track to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.”

The heat pump question

In advocating for non-bioenergy low carbon heat solutions such as heat pumps, the CCC concluded that deployment had continued to remain weak in the UK below predicted indicators.

The CCC’s own data from 2017 suggested that predicted annual sales by 2020 were 8000 units under the number of required installations.

The report stated, “Heat pumps are an established solution in many other countries, but not yet in the UK. Establishing them as a mass-market solution will take some time, with strong progress required during the 2020s. There are particular opportunities in new-build properties, homes off the gas grid, non-residential buildings and for hybrid heat pump systems retrofitted around existing gas boilers.”

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