There is only one way to decarbonise heat and we must realise that now

Electrification is the only realistic way to decarbonise heat at the moment, says Barny Evans of WSP

With regard to the decarbonisation of our energy system we are getting closer to an answer; our electrical generation will almost completely decarbonise, vehicles will electrify, (perhaps even aeroplanes), etc. However for heat, particularly hot water and building heating there is less consensus and the government are consulting on this with regard to off gas grid properties now, and the principles apply to on gas grid.

The government suggest there are three pathways to decarbonise heat but the more you analyse the situation, the more the solution becomes more obvious; that electrification is the only realistic way to decarbonise heat at the moment.

The three pathways suggested are:


This would involve replacing boilers, mainly with heat pumps, which use electricity to upgrade heat from the air, ground or water to deliver heat. Though the almost complete decarbonisation of the electrical system gives very low carbon heat, there are still challenges. Heat pumps work best at lower temperatures and therefore energy efficiency is important. The electrical network will require upgrading for increased demand, the public are unused to heat pumps and the current supply chain is insufficient to deliver the required retrofitting in the UK.

District Heating

Research suggests around 10-20% of the UK’s heat could be delivered by district heating. In the past, a benefit of district heating was that it allowed the use of technologies that would not work on individual buildings, such as combined heat and power (CHP) or biomass. Now it is clear gas CHP increase CO2 emissions over a lifetime and biomass heating and CHP have become less favoured due to the air pollution. Instead it is suggested waste heat from “energy from waste” plants, industrial processes and others can be distributed. This will reduce the amount of viable heat networks but improve their CO2 emissions and eliminate air pollution. Here heat pumps are required to upgrade most waste heat and therefore district heating is a sub-set of the electrification pathway.


The mains gas network could be replaced by a hydrogen network,  this would require complete replacement of all appliances and much of the gas network to be upgraded. (Hydrogen could be used to generate electricity in power stations.) Hydrogen must be generated in a way that doesn’t emit CO2 emissions. This can be achieved by electrolysis, at around 70% efficiency or it can be achieved by steam methane reformation (SMR) at around 75% efficiency, with the CO2 being captured and stored. This has never been done at scale and there are questions about how realistic this is in terms of cost and technical issues. (We are working on trial on this now.) As at present hydrogen at scale is not available, nor the appliances or distribution this is not viable in the short/medium term. (I have ignored the use of hydrogen in high temp. industrial processes and its availability as a by-product of some, to focus on buildings.)

In light of electrification being the only pathway available now, I suggest 5 things:

  • A clear policy on all new build developments that they should be all-electric. This can be led by government and is easy, we work on a lot of all-elec. developments. This does not alter existing buildings but it will build the supply chain in terms of products, operation and maintenance, design skills, industry standards, etc. enabling retrofitting of existing properties in future. New buildings have very low thermal demand and so do not place a significant increase in demand. (The proposed Future Homes Standard  due in 2025 implies this, but we need action earlier.)
  • The CO2 emission factors we use in Building Regulations must be updated now; they currently make electricity look much higher carbon than it is. It is due to be updated now, but this is still delayed. By estimation when the update occurs it will lead to a 70% of the CO2 emission factor for electricity and better reflect reality, encouraging all-electric buildings.
  • Energy Flexibility must be valued – Consultants cannot account for the fact that the carbon intensity of the electrical system varies a lot depending on the time of day and season. This holds back storage heaters, energy storage, and even heat pumps because the benefit they offer is to use low carbon electricity at periods of low demand, supporting balancing of the grid.
  • Require retrofit and energy efficiency programmes to prepare buildings to be all-electric. This is likely to include issues such as ensuring there is space for hot water tanks, a location for an outdoor unit if heat pumps and peak heating demand reduction for storage heaters.
  • Develop a regional plan for electrification – This requires asking Distribution Network Operators (DNOs), local authorities, developers, companies and asset managers to prepare for this actively.

Barny Evans is Technical Director of Energy, Waste and Sustainable Places at WSP and this piece first appeared on their website. 

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