Decarbonisation of Heat: what do we need for a successful transition?

19.04.21 | Simon Kemp, Warmworks' Business Development Manager | Categories: , , , ,

The Scottish Government has an ambition to achieve a net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. The carbon intensity of the electricity generated in Scotland is the lowest in the UK with only 12.7% [1]of the electricity generated in 2019 coming from fossil fuels. This demonstrates clear progress since 2004, where fossil fuels accounted for 50.6%[2] of electricity generated.

However, this is only part of the picture. Heating makes up 40%[3] of the total energy consumption in the UK and in 2019, 89%[4] of Scotland’s 2.5 million homes were heated by burning fossil fuels. To achieve the net-zero ambition, the way we heat our homes will have to change fundamentally, with natural gas and other fossil fuels falling away and being replaced by a decarbonised form of energy. For most people, that’s likely to be electricity.

Heat pumps are a form of electrically-powered renewable heating that take heat from an external ambient source, usually the air or the ground, and use electricity to intensify it before transferring it to the inside of a building. As these don’t burn any fossil fuels at the point of use, they are well placed to contribute to the decarbonisation ambition and are expected to play a huge role in heating Scotland’s homes in the future.

The biggest perceived barriers for people who want to switch to a heat pump are the cost of fitting a new heat pump system, worries about the ongoing costs of the energy to run them, a lack of understanding of the technologies, and a general wariness of new technologies versus those established systems that have been dominant for a long time.

These barriers are starting to be addressed, but we need to pick up the pace. If we are to transition fully to a net-zero future, between 90,000-100,000 low or zero carbon heating systems, such as heat pumps, would need to be installed each year between now and 2045. This is a huge ask, and one which will need the right support behind it to overcome these barriers in a scalable, long-term way.

So what do we need to be successful?

  • We need financial support to help and encourage people to switch to low or zero carbon heating systems, particularly for those households in or at risk of falling into fuel poverty.
  • Alongside that, we need to provide tailored advice, tariff switching support and general wraparound care as part of the installation process, ensuring that householders can get the best out of their new heating system.
  • We need to look at incorporating the broader technology mix such as solar PV and batteries; providing complementary packages of technology to help keep running costs to a minimum.
  • We need additional support for vulnerable households to ensure that they get the right solutions tailored to their needs, installed in a high quality way by companies they can trust, all while ensuring equal access to the new technologies as part of a just transition.
  • We need investment in the training and skills of our workforce to ensure we have the people in place to do all this work. This will be supported by the installer community if they are confident that there will be plenty of work for them to do.
  • And finally, we need to ensure that people who want to switch to low carbon lifestyles can be confident that their heating system will genuinely meet their needs and not leave them any worse off.

Of course, delivery programmes are best placed to demonstrate how this can work and schemes such as Warmer Homes Scotland are already providing evidence to corroborate this approach. But we must go further and faster if we are serious about meeting the ambitious targets around net-zero – making the fundamental technological, economic and societal changes that need to be made whilst ensuring that everyone has equal and supported access to a more sustainable future.

[1] https://scotland.shinyapps.io/Energy/?Section=RenLowCarbon&Subsection=RenElec&Chart=ElecGen

[2] https://scotland.shinyapps.io/Energy/?Section=RenLowCarbon&Subsection=RenElec&Chart=ElecGen

[3] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/central-heating-gas-boiler-climate-change

[4] https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-house-condition-survey-2019-key-findings/pages/4/

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