Further UK policy measures are needed to shift homes towards low carbon heating options, analysis by Cambridge Econometrics finds
Natural gas will still be used to heat UK homes for a "long time" to come, even with the government planning to ban the use of fossil fuel heating in new homes from 2025.
That is the assessment of economists at policy consultancy Cambridge Econometrics, who alongside academics at Radboud University last week published an analysis of the planned Future Homes Standard, which was announced as part of the Chancellor's recent Spring Statement.
It calculated that banning fossil fuel heating systems in new homes from 2025 could lead to annual carbon emissions savings of around 13Mt of CO2 by 2050. The analysis also argued that providing a six-year lead time before the ban kicks in is "sensible" as it will allow companies the chance to become familiar with alternative technologies.
However, it added that due to the long lifetime of existing homes heating systems and boilers, gas for heating "will still be around for a long time". It also warned that the ban also risks discouraging some home owners from shifting to more efficient condensing gas boilers in the short term if they fear the technology is to be phased out from 2025.
Moreover, gas boilers could also be largely replaced with electric systems - such as panel and storage heaters - placing greater pressure on the electricity supplies which the UK grid in its current form "would struggle to cope with", the paper argued.
It said the share of heat pumps in the overall heating mix, meanwhile, is only likely to increase very slightly, and more investment is therefore needed in the power grid to cover peak-time demand for electricity.
Hector Pollitt, head of modelling at Cambridge Econometrics, said the Chancellor's announcement last week was an important first step in decarbonising household heating, but that policymakers would need to consider additional measures to help support the 2025 new home gas heating ban.
"For example, as our analysis shows, gas will be around for some time due to the long lifetime of heating systems," he explained, arguing there may therefore be a need to incentivise existing householders to switch to less carbon intensive options. He also said new homes should be fitted with heat pumps or similar systems with low running costs to avoid higher bills.
"Finally, we shouldn't forget that, as previous analysis by Cambridge Econometrics has shown, improvements in efficiency can lead to significant rewards both in terms of lower heating bills and increased energy efficiency," added Pollitt.
Heating currently accounts for nearly a fifth of UK greenhouse gases, and it is estimated 27 million households will need to rapidly adopt new low carbon heating solutions in the 2020s and 2030s in order to meet national carbon budgets.
As such, ending the UK's heavy reliance on the use of natural gas to heat homes and businesses is seen as crucial for decarbonising the economy, although shifting to greener gases or technologies across the UK remains a complex and potentially costly task.
A separate report from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) in collaboration with the Energy Systems Catapult, which was also released last week, argued smart, digital technology could ease some of the challanges associated with the deployment of low carbon heating systems, as it offers a "better and more consumer-friendly option" for UK households.
Assessing heating controls in the home, heating infrastructure, local building retrofitting, and the operation of the wider grid, the research argues the transition to low carbon heating requires much greater understanding of consumer needs and behaviours, which then needs integrating with new technologies and business models.
Advanced, smart heating controls are "critical to performance, sizing and operating costs, enabling smaller appliances and lower peak electricity demands and maximising the efficiency of existing infrastructure", it stated.
But crucially, it argued that - as well as boosting low carbon heating - newly built homes should be "both very efficient and low carbon ready", describing this a "low regret decision, which should be progressed with some urgency".
Both reports come in the midst of a renewed focus on low carbon heating in recent months. Key energy industry players recently joined together for a Gas Decarbonisation Pathways Project, which is aimed at co-ordinating the ongoing efforts by UK gas grid operators to reduce emissions in line with climate targets.
Led by the Energy Networks Association (ENA), representatives from both industry and the government met last week to discuss the Project, with further meetings planned later this year to develop work programme. Assisted by energy consultancy Navigant, the Project aims to model the role of the gas network through to 2050, assess potential pathways to greener gas networks, and identify short term decarbonisation actions.
David Smith, chief executive of the ENA, said delivering for the public at best value was "paramount" for decarbonising the gas grid. "This is an exciting time for the gas networks as we build on the innovative work that they have already been doing to reduce emissions and now develop a plan that takes us through to 2050," he added.
The task of decarbonising heating systems across the UK's building stock is both essential if carbon targets are to be met and hugely technically challenging. A raft of differing technologies and policies are likely to be required if the roll out of green heating systems is to accelerate over the next two decades. However, after years during which the issue has been largely sidelined, there are now encouraging signs that businesses, policymakers, and research bodies are finally starting to wrestle with the green heat conundrum.
Tech giant quadruples number of locations for US customers to hand in old iPhones as part of recycling and reuse drive
GreenBiz releases its latest update on soaring renewables demand from US corporates
Record amount of future new wind capacity will be financed from last year's investment, according to WindEurope
Nation known for its natural beauty is under pressure with extinctions, polluted rivers and blighted lakes