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Government proposals to ensure technology agnostic approach to low carbon heat are welcomed across sector, despite fears over lack of detail on water storage and building efficiency

The HVAC and building engineering sectors have welcomed the broad commitments to multiple heating technologies in the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy. However, questions have been raised from some associations and bodies about the scope of ambitions concerning how the government will look to try and end fossil fuel systems being installed beyond 2035.

The Heating and Hot Water Industry Council (HHIC) said it welcomed the strategy’s publication following discussions between its members and the government concerning the role system manufacturers will play in delivering low carbon heat.

HHIC director Stewart Clements said the strategy showed that government departments such as BEIS had acknowledged the evidence and feedback industry had provided in recent years.

He said, “HHIC and its members will continue to support the government and consumers with the transition to a mix of new, low-carbon heating solutions for different property types in different parts of the country – such as electric heat pumps, heat networks, and hydrogen boilers.”

“The strategy from government allows the HHIC membership to make the investment choices required to facilitate the manufacturing, installation, and training for low carbon heating products.”

Vaillant, a company that is among a number of manufacturers that is looking to offer both heat pump systems and hydrogen boilers, said the overall strategy would allow the company to take a ‘technology agnostic’ approach to decarbonisation. The company said that this would also include supplying hybrid systems.

Mark Wilkins, training and external affairs head with the company, said questions remained over some vital details around wider policy reforms needed to move towards a net zero economy.

Mr Wilkins said, “Clarity on the timescales is perhaps the much needed first step. We have already seen dates dropped in and moved around, which, rather than galvanising the industry, throws in uncertainty.

“Support and investment in installers and infrastructure will also be crucial to ensure widescale uptake of low carbon technologies. The fact remains that to install the required 600,000 heat pumps, we will need heating installers to upskill. There are approximately 1,000 installers currently MCS accredited and installing heat pumps. To reach this milestone, around 25,000 installers will be needed. This is compared to the 130,000 Gas Registered engineers currently fitting natural gas and oil boilers.

Vaillant said it hoped to now see clear action to help incentivise heat installers to diversify their skills. This will mean undertaking and paying for additional training as well as accreditation schemes that can appear onerous or expensive.

Notable omissions

Isaac Occhipinti, external affairs director for the Hot Water Association (HWA), said there was limited focus in the strategy on the role of storage solutions and how they can support a more flexible approach to powering homes while reducing emissions from heat.

He said, “Unfortunately it fails to recognise the untapped potential of hot water storage-estimated to be around 7 times the capacity of the UK’s largest pumped hydro power facility (Dinorwig in Wales)- instead, focusing on the heat source and forgetting the rest of the heating and hot water system.”

“There is much excitement around the role that energy storage technologies can play to help accommodate more low to zero carbon energy sources into the UK’s generation infrastructure, however, relatively little attention has been paid to hot water cylinders.”

Mr Occhipinti argued that the majority of currently available low carbon heating solutions could require hot water cylinders to ensure an efficient level of performance in the future. Yet he argued this was unrecognised in the final strategy.

He added, “We are in desperate need of a strategy to stop the decline in hot water storage population in the UK. If the government are serious about decarbonisation then we need to encourage homeowners, at the very minimum, to keep their hot water cylinder in order to future proof their heating system and maximise the UK’s energy storage potential.”

The HWA said it hoped to see greater recognition of the role of storage systems to support renewable energy use at a domestic level.

Mr Occhipinti said, “Hot water storage is the only practical solution to turning the energy into something useful and banking it for when it needs to be used.”

“The energy storage potential associated with the UK’s installed capacity of domestic hot water cylinders is comparable to our entire fleet of pumped-hydro-electric storage and with just a fraction of this resource; it would be possible to absorb the largest surpluses of renewable power that arise from offshore wind and solar PV.”

Building efficiency concerns

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), said the organisation was particularly concerned about a failure in the strategy to address several areas that it believes are crucial to a successful decarbonisation plan.

These include the introduction of a large-scale programme for retrofitting domestic properties across the country, as well as reforms to energy standards that are focused on energy use.  A drive to immediately begin to reduce embodied carbon emissions from the construction and whole life operation of building should also have been considered in the plan, added the UKGBC.

Ms Hirigoyen said, “This Heat & Buildings strategy provides scant further detail on any of these aspects, and falls well short of what is required to make the transition to clean heat speedy and fair.”

“Energy efficiency 101 tells us that retrofitting homes with insulation and efficiency measures, has the multiple benefits of lowering fuel bills, enabling low carbon heat solutions to work more effectively, and creating jobs. If we don’t urgently take that basic first step we run the risk of overloading the electricity grid and continue to fail to meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable.”

The UKGBC’s reserved its strongest criticism for the lack of reference or plans to introduce a successor for the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme after it was abruptly scrapped less then a year after being launched.

Ms Hirigoyen said the government had missed an important opportunity to announce any long-term programmes or initiatives to drive consumer demand for low carbon systems such as a ‘Green Stamp Duty’ or introducing zero per cent VAT on renovations.

She said, “Equally disturbing to see no firm new proposals on ratcheting up minimum standards for privately rented homes or regulations to improve the energy performance of owner-occupied homes.”

“We need all of these policies – and more – if our built environment is to stand any chance at all of getting to net zero.”

Electrification importance

There was some praise form the UKGBC that the government had shown recognition of the importance of ending a reliance on heating homes with fossil fuels by moving to electric systems that can make use of renewable power.

Yet Ms Hirigoyen said the targets to phase out natural gas boilers with 2035 should not be considered ambitious enough.  Instead, she urged the government to introduce a clear cut-off for allowing installation of fossil fuel systems by 2030 to ensure  the UK’s net zero aims were on track.

The proposed £5,000 grants to support heat pump adoption from next year are estimated to support only 30,000 households over the three year they will be offered, according to Ms Hirigoyen.

She said, “This is a drop in the ocean in the context of the 900,000 annual installations we need to see by 2028. Worse still, there’s no targeted financial help at all for low income households to embark on the journey to clean electric heating – meaning that the gap between rich and poor will widen, not close. “

A view from the oil heating sector

A joint statement from oil heating body OFTEC and fuel distributor association UKIFDA expressed encouragement for the strategy and an associated consultation on how best to decarbonise off-grid properties from the middle of the current decade.

The two bodies argued that the government had accepted that there may be scope for making use of alternative liquid fuels in cases where heat pumps might not be suitable for certain properties.

They said that renewable liquid fuels should be considered as an option for homes following trials conducted over the last 12 months.

OFTEC chief executive Paul Rose claimed that liquid heating fuel from renewable sources could be an ideal solution for off-grid properties when considering the costs to convert certain rural homes to heat pump use.

HE said, “It can be achieved in one visit and use the existing infrastructure both in the home and in industry. The Heating and Buildings Strategy acknowledges that there could be a role to play for these types of fuel. What is needed is the same incentives currently provided for the use of the renewable liquid fuel in cars and planes extended to home heating. It makes no sense to incentivise these fuels for travel but not for keeping people warm in winter.”

UKIFDA chief executive argued that it would eb vital for the government to realise why off-grid customers were reliant on using oil for their central heating systems.

He said, “A typical oil heated home is detached, built pre-1919 with solid walls, is rural and quite often remote, far from the gas grid and with less resilient connections to the electricity grid meaning that the cost to convert to heat pumps will be on average £20,000 per home.”

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