Decarbonising homes – the UK challenge

The Smart Systems and Heat programme is developing products and services to decarbonize UK homes.
Published: Tue 21 Jun 2016

Homes which require heating are a major source of carbon emissions, especially in the UK which is sufficiently far north for them to require substantial heat but too far south for energy efficiency to have been a consideration in much of their current building stock. With national and global commitments to reduce carbon emissions, especially in the wake of the Paris COP 21 agreement reached in December 2015, homes form a relatively homogeneous group for which emission reduction actions can be considered.

Industry in all of its diversity is already some way down the path towards lowering its emissions, with a wide range of potential reduction options and reporting requirements. The other major contributor to emissions, the transport sector has similarly already embarked on measures, with the growing emergence of hybrid, electric and hydrogen vehicles. But so far little consideration has been given to the housing (and small business) sector – and that is now starting to change.

Decarbonising UK homes

“In the UK, homes, primarily through heating, contribute about 20% of the national carbon emissions – about 100 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or almost 4 tonnes per household,” Jeff Douglas, strategy manager of the Smart Systems and Heat (SSH) programme at the Energy Systems Catapult, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “And it is more cost effective to tackle decarbonisation of heat rather than make deeper cuts to either industry or transportation,” he says, commenting on the background to the SSH programme

The programme has been developed by the UK’s Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), and the Energy Systems Catapult is delivering phase one of the programme to the ETI before testing the learnings of this phase in a large scale physical demonstration of heating technologies which the Catapult will run independent of the ETI.

The Catapult aims to create a clean, intelligent energy system for the UK. It has been set up in response to a growing awareness of the need to take a whole system approach to the challenge of transforming the UK’s energy sector, both affordably and securely. [Engerati-Energy Systems To Get Catapulted] The Catapult is also helping the UK capture commercial opportunities and create new businesses across the energy sector.

Douglas explains that the ultimate goal of the SSH programme is to develop new products, services and business models that can be introduced for heat decarbonisation – bearing in mind that these will need to be implemented at a rate of approximately 20,000 homes per week to convert all 26 million homes by 2050.

“Currently heating in the UK is largely gas-based and we need to move to a system with near zero emissions that is both affordable and secure, whilst also providing the necessary degree of warmth and comfort for consumers.”

Smart Systems and Heat programme

The programme is being implemented in two phases. In the first, which runs to 2017, understanding is being built of consumer requirements, and the capabilities and modelling requirements are also being developed. In the second phase, there will be demonstrations and enablement of the solutions. The first demonstration areas being targeted, in conjunction with the respective local authorities, are in Newcastle, Bridgend and Greater Manchester, engaging maybe 6,000 homes.

“We want a representative sample of homes and populations in the demonstration,” says Douglas, commenting that the social requirements are very much at the core of the whole programme.

Consumer requirements for decarbonisation

So what are some of the findings to date?

A key one Douglas points to is that while consumers are obviously concerned about costs, this is not always the number one factor when it comes to decisions on heating systems – instead the top concerns are the comfort and value the systems deliver.

Another finding is that there is little understanding of the low carbon products that can be used for heating and that there is little motivation to find out.

“Currently most people only replace their boilers when the existing one breaks down and it is usually in a distress situation needing to be done as quickly as possible, so even if one wants to it isn’t easy to switch to a low carbon option.”

Low carbon heating options

Douglas says there are generally three principle routes to low carbon heating currently. These are heat networks, such as those used commonly in continental Europe, powered by low carbon heat sources, high efficiency heat pumps and reusing the existing gas network for other gases, such as hydrogen. Each have their own implementation challenges.

“Our basic assumption is that different options will find application in different areas.”

In investigating the low carbon heating options, an area approach is being adopted, taking into account factors such as house types, geography and the layout of the existing energy resources, he says. Through new software that has been developed as part of the programme, least cost, effective pathways can be generated and the resultant heating systems can be evaluated in engagement with local stakeholders.

Low carbon heating marketplace

While any new low carbon heating solutions will be costly to implement and will likely require some level of legislation, the approach of the SSH programme is that such switching should eventually be driven by the market.

“New products and services will create the marketplace.”

This approach also accounts for the importance of a ‘systems’ view, in “needing to look across the whole energy system rather than focusing on an individual technology.”

“Decarbonising 26 million homes is a substantial challenge but we believe a systems approach will lead to the most effective solutions and pathways, taking account of the resources available and the desired outcomes,” Douglas concludes.