Net Zero Strategy and Heat & Buildings - the Industry responds

The industry responds!

The Government released its long-delayed Net Zero Review and Heating and Hot Water Strategy last week. As the UK’s building stock is responsible for such a high proportion of the country’s Carbon Emissions, the Building Services sector in both domestic and commercial arenas will both be hugely impacted by the strategies and front and centre in the response. 

Here’s what the industry had to say.

Don Mclean of IES was blunt and to the point. While this move away from fossil fuel use is undoubtedly welcome, it is a move which is short-sighted in that it does nothing to plug the colossal inefficiency gap of the nation’s building stock.

“This looks like the Government has raised the white flag to say that they have no idea how to decarbonise the country. They are saying the risk of failing to decarbonise is much greater than the risk of nuclear energy… Put simply, we need to start using energy more efficiently. It is not difficult. The more efficiently we use energy the less energy we need to generate. Every unit of energy we save eliminates to energy lost in producing it. 

“The Government should be working to make our built environment more energy efficient; this will reduce energy demand”

The Energy Services and Technology Association (ESTA)  highlighted the “Total lack of focus on energy efficiency” in the reports, with Director Mervyn Pilley saying “we are disappointed that there is little to no focus on demand-side energy efficiency, particularly in relation to the non-domestic sector.

“Using less energy, through the use of existing, long established, energy efficiency solutions, should be the start of every Net Zero journey. It is very cost effective indeed when measured against the other energy transition and decarbonisation solutions", and Actuate UK also raised the need for "Far greater emphasis is required on creating energy efficient buildings."

Peter Spurway of LG Electronics had raised concerns about efficiency even before the report was released by, saying “we are in a wastage crisis which has to be the pillar of any of the upcoming Net Zero Strategy or Heat and Buildings Strategy” in the run-up to the release.

However, Mike Thornton of the Energy Saving Trust was more positive. He said “It brings together the UK’s decarbonisation policies and recognises the importance of a holistic approach that identifies the dependencies between departments and sectors… we welcome the Government’s commitment to supporting society’s most vulnerable through energy bill discounts and insulation upgrades. This will phase out our reliance on the use of fossil fuels and protect people from volatile fuel prices”, and Lesley Rudd of Electrical Safety First added the need to reach not just industry, but the wider public: “The Government’s approach means that consumers will have to make voluntary choices in order for Net Zero to be achieved, and therefore public engagement is key.”

The sheer scale of ambition in the reports was widely noted, with Chris Ball of Atkins saying: The scale of the challenge to achieve Net Zero is greater than any engineering programme ever delivered; from the build rate required to decarbonise power by 2035, to the scale and pace of the programme required to retrofit buildings and transform our transportation systems and infrastructure.” And Jan Rosenow of (amongst others) The Environmental Change Institute noting that to meet targets carbon emissions from UK buildings need to drop by a whopping 47-62% by 2035.”

Andrew Sissons of Nesta noted that the majority of the cost was going to have to be borne by the private sector. He said the big question for now is whether it has enough money behind it. [The Treasury] is relying on the private sector to deliver the bulk of Net Zero, with as little government money as possible”, and Emma Bohari of IMS Heat Pumps said “There is no denying that even with the £5,000 grant, it remains more expensive to install a heat pump system over your standard gas boiler. The average cost for a heat pump is anywhere between £9k and £15k. Whilst the Government hopes that ‘innovation’ can drive down the cost of building and installing a heat pump, the ever-increasing cost of the materials needed to build the technology makes this highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. 

“Coupled with this is the shortage of skilled technicians and engineers needed to install the heat pumps. All these factors combine to keep installation costs high”.

Luke Osborne of the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) went further, saying £450 million over three years only equates to 90,000 installations. Industry is currently installing around 30,000 heat pumps per year, so this funding is unlikely to drive a large amount of additional demand – today’s announcement maintains the status quo for now”, and Oliver Baker of Ambion Heating echoed this, saying “the new funding will only cover around 30,000 heat pumps a year (for three years) compared with the 1.5 million gas boilers to replace each year.  So, it is clear that this policy announcement only scratches the surface and we still have a long way to go to deliver net zero in our homes.”

The concern about costs was put into direct, practical terms by Mark Grieves of Plymouth Gas, who said “If you think you're going to get a heat pump installation, with a correctly designed and installed heating and hot water system for £5,000, then you should also expect the company to soon close their doors and start another…without loyalty to you!”

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) recognised the £5000 grants for domestic heat pumps as a welcome start, but highlighted the huge need for skills investment that will be required to make the levels of installation required a possibility, never mind a reality, with David Frise saying “Switching the industry from traditional fossil fuel solutions to more renewable and low carbon systems requires a monumental programme of reskilling and recruitment… Someone who has spent their career installing boilers cannot just turn round and start putting in heat pumps without detailed training to understand the nuances of low temperature heating including improving building insulation.”

The need for upskilling was also recognised by both Actuate UK and Russell Deane of Mitsubishi Electric. Russell Deane said we must now see a concerted effort to train up a nationwide network of installers that can deliver on this new opportunity. This can be done by upskilling gas boiler engineers and installers to ensure they are not left behind as the country moves towards a growth in green jobs and heat pumps receive the backing of the big energy network providers.", and Actuate UK adding "Greatly increased engineering and technical capacity, which includes reskilling, is vital to a successful transition to lower carbon buildings. Engineering and technical recruitment and training must focus on an holistic approach, where buildings and carbon saving technologies are viewed as an effective system."

This assumes that the levels of installation called for are even possible, as Myles Robinson of Boiler Central pointed out. He said We estimate that only 50% of homes would be suitable currently, but when you take into account the costs and inadequate funding offered, this will be a much lesser percentage.”

Hydrogen was highlighted as a much more appropriate solution for much of the UK, with Myles going on to say “The Government is looking into using hydrogen as a suitable alternative, which is much more suited to UK homes. However, as progress is slow on getting gas grids to switch to hydrogen, the UK is pushing heat pumps as a solution when they are just a sticking plaster on a serious problem.

“In the coming years, the Government are planning on introducing 20% hydrogen and 80% gas as a way of fuelling homes, with a long-term view to using 100% hydrogen. However, the technology is decades away from being fully rolled out” and Steve McConnell of the Industrial and Commercial Heating Equipment Association (ICOM) added “The UK has real potential for hydrogen in particular, which can deliver new skilled jobs in places where the UK already has a proud industrial and energy heritage.”

Similarly, Karen Boswell of Baxi Heating also raised Hydrogen as a necessary part of the solution, saying We firmly believe that all viable technologies have a place, including electrification, hydrogen, and deployment of low carbon heat networks. BEIS is wise to leave these options open as it is abundantly clear that no single solution will deliver net-zero.

The mix of responses indicates that the industry regards the reports as imperfect solutions, and the Association of Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) recognised the impact of political reality on what is and is not possible, with Director Michael Farrow saying “The attempt to balance maintaining public support while delivering regulatory clarity is clumsy but politically understandable.” 

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