Decarbonising Heating in Homes – Can the UK Parliamentary Committee for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy make progress?

19 February, 2021

Janette Webb

Reading time: 4 minutes

Jan Webb reflects on the recent BEIS inquiry on heating homes where, alongside Nick Eyre director of CREDS, she answered questions about potential technologies, including housing retrofit, and their challenges and price tags.

Towards the end of 2020, the BEIS Committee launched an inquiryOpens in a new tab into decarbonising heating in homes, aiming to consider policies, priorities and timelines.

The UK Climate Change Committee has repeatedly commented on the lack of policy – and material progress – on heat in buildings, as well as the poor state of housing stock. This Inquiry is therefore long overdue, and an essential area for Committee action to support net zero targets. We should thank Jan Rosenow (European Programme Director, Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP)) for a successful ‘pitch’, which convinced the Committee to take this on!

The first evidence session, on 9 February, was Chaired by Labour MP Darren Jones, and included six other MPs from Conservative, Labour and Scottish National Parties, (and more ties around necks than I’ve seen since first pandemic lockdown). Four academics (Nick Eyre, Director of CREDS; Richard Lowes, Exeter University; Will McDowall, UCL and (blog author) Jan Webb, Edinburgh University) answered questions about potential technologies, including housing retrofit, and their challenges and price tags.

Network mix

Nick Eyre got the first difficult question about the whole system solutions. Nick emphasised the need to make decisions about the mix of networks – electricity, decarbonised gas and heat – and the value of avoiding duplication, given the upfront capital costs. He also set out the range of end use appliances (from boilers to resistance heaters, heat pumps and connection to a heat network), and the importance of heat storage to manage peak loads. The discussion moved on to follow up Nick’s overarching point about the importance of ‘efficiency first’ which makes the whole transition less demanding and less costly, while improving the housing stock and helping to save on bills. The take up of home insulation remains slow, and we discussed again the need for consistent policy, with incentives backed by regulation, to increase it. It is ironic then that, following a period of cuts in energy efficiency policy in England, the Green Homes Grant scheme, introduced in 2020, is already stalling and may have most of the funding removedOpens in a new tab.

Further discussion at the Committee centred on the feasible technologies and their combinations. We covered the viability of electrification of heat, and the need for additional network capacity as well as accelerated household switching to heat pumps; the repurposing of the methane gas grid, and heating appliances, for hydrogen; and the development of district heating networks to use ‘waste’ or ‘residual’ heat in places where demand for heat is high and heat sources can be shared between nearby buildings. The Committee members were interested in views on the mix of incentives, regulation, consumer protections and investments in policy to drive this major transition to low-carbon heating, but it was above all the costs, as well as technical and social feasibility, which dominated. Witnesses were pressed on what we considered to be the likely total costs of the transition and whether a common estimate of circa £250 billion was about right. A particular issue was the vexed question of ‘who pays’ and ‘value for public money’, with underlying questions about the mix of grants and subsidies from general taxation, vs levies on bills and their impacts on affordability of heating, and direct payments by households.

Dispassionate decison-making

We moved on to discuss governance structures, shares of responsibility and the potential for different regional solutions, as well as considering lessons from other countries dependent on methane gas. In this brief discussion, what stood out for me was again the combined urgency and complexity of the task, set in the context of a highly developed gas grid and associated industry. We need dispassionate decisions on policy by UK Government, which holds the critical powers over energy markets and regulation. As stated in the BEIS 2018 report, Clean Growth: Transforming HeatingOpens in a new tab, change of this scale and breadth will require a level of coordination beyond most public policy change programmes.

Banner photo credit: He Gong on Unsplash