Low-carbon heating is amongst the toughest challenges facing climate policy for the UK to achieve near zero-emissions by 2050.

The ‘Beast from the East’ in March 2018 highlighted the challenge of heating UK homes during an extended cold period. Most of this heat was provided by natural gas through the UK’s natural gas networks, which supplied an extra 120 GW of demand over a 3 hour period. This demand is equivalent to 15 million UK households turning their heating from zero to max over three hours, all at the same time.
How will we stay warm as the UK moves away from natural gas and towards low-carbon systems such as heat pumps or hydrogen? The CCC (Committee on Climate Change) has continually identified the need to reduce emissions from the UK’s buildings – which made up almost 20% of the UK’s overall emissions in 2017 – in order to meet its decarbonisation targets. This means a combination of making existing and new properties more energy efficient, and finding a low-carbon heat source for 85% of UK households that currently use fossil-fuel based natural gas. These households currently emit around 2tCO2 per household per year – roughly equivalent to a return flight to Argentina – which represents around one tenth of the average UK household’s carbon footprint.
Heat pumps are a low-regrets option in over half of the four million homes not currently connected to the mains gas network, and can be supplemented with a mix of other technologies.
Heat pumps:
  • Can be the lowest cost option where homes are sufficiently insulated, or can be insulated affordably.
  • In some smaller or very efficient flats, new generation storage heaters offer a highly flexible and low-cost solution for meeting small space heating loads.
  • Other solutions, such as hybrid heat pumps or biomass boilers, are viable in large, hard-to-insulate homes where fitting an all-electric heat pump would be too expensive.
There is a growing body of evidence providing insights into how best to manage the low-carbon transition of heating systems in order to meet the UK’s legally-binding 2050 climate change targets. Studies include the ongoing Freedom project hybrid heat pump trials, the H21 project, research by the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on low-cost solid wall insulation, and the Government’s heat strategic options publication (due imminently).

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