Can we roll out low-carbon heating on a mass scale?

Some developers have expressed doubts about the government's emissions targets

The UK government’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050 is a positive step towards helping minimise Great Britain’s impact on climate change, but its ambitious standards will prove a challenge for the heating and plumbing industry.

“The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) welcomes the drive for energy efficient buildings and the path to net zero carbon emissions,” says Kevin Wellman, chief executive officer of the CIPHE. “However, these new standards are being introduced rapidly into an industry fighting the effects of COVID-19, problems with the supply chain and a training crisis. To be successful, the industry has to work together and support must be given to help deliver on government aims.”

Heating and plumbing engineers will play an integral role in decarbonisation of heat so it’s important that they adapt a forward-thinking approach to training and invest in their future.

New beginnings

In order to achieve net zero target, the government has introduced the Future Homes Standard, which features amendments to Part F (ventilation) and Part L (conservation of fuel and power) of Building Regulations for new homes in England. The revised standards will ensure that new homes built from 2025 will produce 75-80% less carbon emissions than homes under the current regulations.

“There’s no question that there has to be a move away from natural gas and oil as fuel for heating homes, but from a CIPHE perspective this means focussing on upskilling installers and engineers,” says Richard Soper, CIPHE member and former chief executive officer of Worcester Bosch. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pre-existing homes will also be subject to higher standards, but only if owners are planning on making thermal upgrades or building extensions. A full technical specification for the Future Homes Standard will be consulted on in 2023, with an introduction of the necessary legislation in 2024, ahead of implementation in 2025.

Finding solutions

Greenpeace UK’s head of climate, Kate Blagojevic, said: “We urgently need government policies that force house builders to start building homes fit for a zero-carbon future because it’s clear the industry won’t do it by itself. Not only will this slash emissions, but it will also make people’s homes warmer, cheaper to run and, with the right incentives, create a green homes industry that would deliver new jobs and boost the economy.”

Hydrogen has been touted as a possible solution to reduce CO2 in new-build homes, with pilot projects already underway in the UK. Air source heat pump (ASHP) technology is also in the running to be the primary heating technology in place of gas, which is one of the UK’s biggest causes of greenhouse gases.

The main advantage of using ASHPs is that they do not produce any CO2 while operating, although they do require electricity. However, they can be used in conjunction with solar PV panels for clean heat. The running costs are also lower with ASHP, compared with off-grid fuels like oil, propane or direct electric heating.

Dr Jan Rosenow, Europe director at energy think tank the Regulatory Assistance Project, said: “The homes we build today will be here for decades to come. It is critical that what we build is compatible with the UK’s climate goals. This means new buildings need to be as efficient as they can be and heated by low carbon technology. A weak standard for new homes will cost us in the future.”

Other countries have successfully converted to alternative forms of fuel, such as Switzerland, which uses energy efficient heat pumps in 90% of new buildings. Germany and the US also use this method and it is gradually becoming the dominant choice.

Paul Massey, CIPHE board of trustees member, says: “There needs to be more investment in manufacturing, in terms of assembly and design in the UK. The elements surrounding the cost to consumers will also need to be addressed.”

Upgrading

Following the announcement by the prime minister that the UK government will set a target of cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, it’s not just new homes that will be required to have a significantly reduced carbon footprint, but pre-existing housing stock too.

Brian Berry, chief executive officer of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), said: “The prime minister’s target will help accelerate the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy, but the building industry needs a National Retrofit Strategy to have the confidence it needs to invest in greening our homes. Our homes use 35% of the UK’s total energy usage and emit 20% of carbon dioxide emissions. Net zero will only be possible with a long-term plan to green our homes.”

The early scrapping of the Green Homes Grant Scheme has left the feasibility of upgrading existing homes in question. The Green Homes Grant aimed to retrofit 600,000 households with energy efficiency measures and low-carbon heating, but only delivered around 10% of this target.

“It’s disappointing that the Green Homes Grant has fallen short of what was promised, but installers who have invested in training should not feel their efforts have been wasted,” says Griff Thomas, managing director at training provider GTEC. “Renewables are the future and installers willing to embrace new technology and training as a long-term investment rather than a quick win will be well placed to prosper in the low-carbon future.”

Despite the fact that the Green Homes Grant is no longer available, there will still be demand for installers to upskill to low-carbon technologies. The grant has resulted in investment in training with initiatives such as the Renewable Heat Installer Training and Support Scheme (RHITSS), which has offered funding to existing engineers who want to future-proof their businesses with qualifications and accreditations in heat pumps and solar thermal technology.

“Decarbonising domestic heat is a mammoth task – way beyond the reach of short-term government initiatives,” says Thomas. “We know that gas central heating will not meet decarbonisation targets for new homes when the Future Homes Standard is introduced in 2025. This legislation is a much better indicator of long-term change within the heating industry than the Green Homes Grant and I would urge heating installers to train for the future, not the scheme.”

Industry response

Housebuilders, such as Barratt, Berkeley and Thakeham, were on board with the government’s greener homes policy, evident in the response released under environmental transparency laws. In fact, in 2020, Thakeham launched a plan to become carbon neutral by 2025, pledging that every Thakeham home will be zero carbon in lifetime operation, that each home built will be carbon neutral in production and Thakeham Group as a whole will also be zero carbon.

Rob Boughton, chief executive officer of Thakeham, said: “We make no secret of our focus on zero carbon targets. Whilst we support the government campaign, we have introduced bigger targets of our own which exceed those set out for the house-building industry.

“We have already implemented a raft of pioneering zero carbon measures to lead and inspire the industry response. We stand shoulder to shoulder with other developers who share our ambitious vision for sustainable community creation. It’s simply too important not to.”

However, according to documents obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s journalism arm, Taylor Wimpey – which builds around 15,000 houses a year – argued that the plans were “too ambitious”. Responding to the findings, a spokesperson for Taylor Wimpey said: “Taylor Wimpey communicated its support in the consultation response and remains fully supportive of the UK government’s target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

“We also embrace the Future Homes Standard with its ambition to reduce carbon emissions from homes in use by 75-80% by 2025.

“In response to the government’s calls for honest interaction around the Future Homes Standard in 2020, Taylor Wimpey identified a number of challenges relating to the practical implementation of the proposals. These challenges led to concerns that the delivery of viable and much-needed new housing could be prejudiced, which we duly communicated to the government in our response.”

People power

The government has pledged 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028, but with only around 1,000 MCS certified heat pump installers, compared to 130,000 installers on the Gas Safe Register, how realistic is this target? According to a recent Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report, this clear lack of accredited tradespeople will jeopardise the government’s targets.

An undertaking of this scale requires a skilled workforce of installers, which currently simply isn’t there. To roll this out on such a scale requires the government to invest in people.

“It is my opinion that the government’s aspiration to deliver a net carbon neutral economy is underpinned by the ability to provide a zero-carbon alternative for residential domestic heating,” says Peter Herring, building services, at Sweco. “This in turn is reliant on a well-trained and motivated cohort of tradespeople who have not been seduced by the academic rhetoric of a university education being the only route to a successful, satisfying and financially rewarding career. If the recent restrictions of the pandemic have taught us anything it should be that people who use their hands in conjunction with their heads are a valuable and scarce resource to be bolstered at every opportunity. ‘Intelligent hands’ via apprenticeships is undoubtedly the way forward.”

Heat pumps are set to play a central role in reaching the government-set targets. In order to achieve these targets, 27 million residential properties and two million commercial and industrial buildings will need to be retrofitted with low-carbon heating technologies, making skilled installers vital in the journey to decarbonisation.

“There remains concern over the shortage of adequately skilled installers who are able to design, install and maintain low-carbon technology,” says Wellman. “The essential thing for the CIPHE, as an educational charity, is to make sure that the public aren’t exposed to rogue installers who aren’t trained to install these technologies. In recognition of this, the CIPHE will soon launch its Low Temperature Heating Design and Hot Water course, which has been developed in liaison with government, and with significant cooperation from manufacturers, educators, industry organisations and a team of CIPHE volunteers. This will undoubtedly help to upskill the industry and will be a fantastic tool in the armoury for all those who have an interest in quality education and training.”

Read more about the Future Homes Standard at www.gov.uk


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