The department for business, energy and Industrial Strategy has released a paper outlining how Britain can cost-effectively electrify its heating system. Nick Gander and Rod Davies of Energy Carbon argue that Ministers are missing a trick.
At the time of writing, the UK is on the brink of an energy crisis. The causes are, as ever, very complex.
First, fuel reserves in countries across the northern hemisphere were already running low after the cold winter of 2020-2021.
Chinese industry, one of the world’s biggest energy consumers, is rapidly bouncing back from the initial impact of the pandemic. Other major manufacturing nations are following suit.
Meanwhile, Gazprom, Russia’s government-owned gas giant, has refused to increase exports to Europe despite worsening shortages – a stance some are interpreting as a bargaining chip in its long-running attempt to get approval for its controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
And none of this has been helped by developments closer to home – like the decision to close Rough, the UK’s main gas storage facility, which took the country’s reserves from 15 days’ winter demand to less than five, and a severe post-Brexit shortage of HGV drivers.
But behind all that complexity, the short version is quite simple: as a country, and as a world, we are far too reliant on gas.
Electrification costs overestimated
It is an extremely timely moment for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to release a report on how the country moves away from gas-powered heating, and develops an electrical heating network instead.
The study – released under the not especially catchy title of Cost-Optimal Domestic Electrification – seeks to find the most cost-effective way of converting the country’s 29 million private dwellings to low-carbon electric heating.
It is an extremely long and detailed document, but there are a number of key takeaways that can be derived from its 140-plus pages.
The first is some good news – the authors’ investigations show that “Great Britain’s homes can convert to electric heating at a cost far lower than the accepted wisdom.”
What’s more, they argue, “this can be achieved with no threat to comfort, and greenhouse gas emissions will fall very dramatically as a result.”
The report then goes on to analyse twelve types of low-carbon heating technology, and consider how cost-effective they would be for homeowners to implement.
For those of us who have closely followed Government thinking on the topic of green heating for a while, the conclusions are not particularly surprising. For years, the Government has favoured air-source heat pump technology. That is the case here too.
We, and many others in the sector, have always felt this approach is very short-sighted – ignoring both some of the drawbacks of rolling them out on a national scale, and other promising alternative technologies.
Heat pumps “are likely to need replacing”
The report’s findings are based on calculations of how much it would cost homeowners to install different types of heating tech over the next 15 years.
So, even with an ambitious Government scheme to introduce heat pumps in every home in the country – assuming pumps will last 15 years – a product installed today would have to be replaced at least once between now and 2050.
Why the Government has chosen a period of 15 years to base their calculations on is not exactly clear, given their commitment to reaching net zero by 2050.
Far infrared heating has also been skimmed over. There is one sort of infrared heating in their modelling, but only localised, high-temperature panel systems that are commonly installed on walls. These have the potential to be dangerous for children, older adults or anyone who accidentally falls against them given the heat they give off, and their effectiveness heavily depends on where they are positioned around the home.
Other kinds of far infrared heating can provide totally different benefits. Able to become part of the fabric of the building, leading infrared products can be vastly more safe than panel products – and by being plastered into the ceiling, or inserted behind the plasterboard, offer total coverage of a room.
As such, the report has failed to recognise a product that is quick and simple to fit, helps householders achieve thermal comfort much quicker than alternative methods, is long lasting and requires zero maintenance, and could easily be rolled out at scale to help rapidly decarbonise Britain’s environment.
For the sake of the country and the environment, we hope the Government catches on quickly.
Nick Gander and Rod Davies are co-founders of infrared heating supplier Energy Carbon