Every time we turn the heating on in our house, or take a hot shower, we are using energy and generating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the UK 40% of total energy consumption is used for heating buildings and water. Much of the energy used for this comes from direct burning of natural gas. Overall, heating buildings and water produces 20% of UK GHG emissions.
Therefore, if the UK government is to meet its legally binding target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, large changes to the UK’s National infrastructure are required. Change is needed, not just in the energy sector, but across all infrastructure sectors, within individual buildings, and throughout supply chains.
Working as part of the Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition, UKCRIC and the University of Leeds have contributed to a new report - The Path To Zero Carbon Heat. The report clearly illustrates the magnitude of this challenge, and the type and scale of action that will be needed – both now and over the next thirty years to achieve net-zero GHG emissions from heating.
The report details three credible pathways to net zero heating, based around electrification, use of hydrogen gas, or a combination of both. The development of these roadmaps began with an in-depth literature review of the range of heat decarbonisation pathways already proposed by industry, academia and other organisations. In total, 87 pathways for the decarbonisation of heating in the UK were considered; full details of the review can be downloaded here.
The report emphasises that regardless of the chosen pathway there are many urgent actions that must be taken over the next five to ten years. For example, the widespread roll out of heat pumps for electrification of heat will require scaling up the supply chain to reach millions of homes and other buildings. This process cannot wait, else we will not be able to reach the destination. Adoption of hydrogen will need new infrastructure for its production, as well as capturing and safely storing emissions arising from that process. A system for distribution of the hydrogen, as well as new appliances in buildings, will also be required. Some of these technologies are currently untested at scale, and therefore will require urgent investment in research, development and demonstration over the next five years.
Furthermore, all pathways must be complemented by further investment in energy efficiency measures in buildings, district heating networks, and increased electricity generation and transmission capacity.
However, among the challenges is some good news. At a time when we have the opportunity to “build back better” a post COVID-19 world, working towards a decarbonised heat sector will bring investment and create significant numbers of jobs in infrastructure provision and upgrading, building renovations and retrofit. These jobs will span research and development, engineering and construction, and support new and existing SMEs working with millions of individual householders. Moreover, whichever path we choose, energy efficient homes have the potential to help reduce energy poverty and support other strategic benefits.
Significantly, perhaps the biggest challenge of all, is that this positive vision of the future, a green led economic recovery and sustainable jobs, require positive governmental leadership and commitment now. Market uncertainty needs replacing with consistent policy across the energy, infrastructure and housing sectors. Critical new technologies require research investment. Campaigns are required for public information, to inform on what changes will be required in homes and workplaces, and help provide public acceptance and confidence in this new positive future. All these activities will require coordination, likely to be best provided a new national body for stewardship of heat decarbonisation.
A zero carbon future is possible. This new report shows us the route to this goal. But we need to make a positive decision to act now. Inaction and indecision will not just cause delay, but a large missed opportunity for our children’s sustainable future.