An integrated mindset

Rebecca Sweeney asks: Can the UK decarbonise domestic heat by 2050?

Decarbonising domestic heat is one of the more cost-effective ways to tackle emissions in the UK, which could help meet the UK’s 2050 climate and energy targets. In the UK, heating is the largest single user of energy, and the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases. In fact, household heating alone is responsible for 20 per cent of the UK’s overall national carbon emissions. This is why it is vital that we decarbonise domestic heat, despite the challenge this presents.

ETI’s research demonstrates that eliminating emissions from buildings will be more cost-effective than making deeper cuts in other harder to decarbonise industries and sectors such as transport.

The next decade is critical in preparing for any low carbon heating transition to build supply chain capability and capacity as rapid implementation is required from 2025 onwards. However, it is important to acknowledge that the consumer is not presently inclined to change their heating systems simply to combat emission reductions, and the same solution will not suit everyone.

A one size approach will not fit all and the consumer will ultimately determine whether the transition takes place. While industry develops low carbon solutions, it’s vital to remember the role of the consumer and ensure we address their needs. By understanding consumers and how they use energy and heat, we can begin to shape the solutions to match those needs.

Today, fewer than four per cent of people have low carbon heating. It is likely that the consumer will become disengaged from a low carbon transition if it is centred around a unit price for energy consumption. It is time to start seeing heat as a service people want to pay for.

The future could see people buy low carbon heating packages like they buy mobile phone tariffs today, that will help people value and control what they spend. The future of heating in the UK will be different, but at the moment no one understands quite how different. The question is, how do you move from a heating system that today generally provides a good service but burns natural gas and generates emissions, to one that is secure and affordable but produces at a near zero emissions level whilst also continuing to provide the warmth and comfort that is so important to consumers?

Surprisingly, the technology to deliver low carbon heating is known and is available but is simply underdeveloped in practice. The challenge comes in knowing how you use the technologies effectively and economically. This is why our experts believe that solutions should be integrated to work at a systems level, not independently.

There are three principal pathways for decarbonising domestic space and water heating. The first is with local area schemes using heat networks, the second is by individual home systems using decarbonised electric heat and the third is the use of hydrogen as a fuel in the future.

It’s estimated that 90 per cent of the UK’s current housing stock will still be in use in 2050, which represents a huge challenge if just the private sector is entrusted to deliver change. It is essential that the government invests to help demonstrate new technologies ‘at scale’ so that systems can be integrated and a commercial route to mass-markets can be developed. These are the key components to decarbonise heat, and the ETI’s Smart Systems and Heat programme (delivered for us by the Energy Systems Catapult) has identified three vital next steps to create a consumer-led integrated systems approach.

Real Consumer Data
Testing different types of low carbon technology is essential to gather ‘real consumer’ data, which will help us better understand consumer drivers and perspectives. For example, to be attractive to consumers, the installation of a low carbon heating system should be comparable in time to the installation of a gas boiler. If it is too much longer and significantly more expensive it will not appeal, creating a barrier to adoption.

This knowledge gathering will also provide an understanding into what improves the heat experience. Rather than just replicating our current experiences, a low carbon heating technology design should strive to tackle common problems and actually enhance home life. That will motivate the consumer to make the switch.

Local area energy planning
To enable a cost effective low carbon transition, more advanced local area energy planning is needed to identify the right technologies in the right place, at the right time. These solutions will be influenced by several factors including local resources, political support and leadership, consumer and community preferences, technological innovation and cost.

Therefore, the development of local area energy plans will play a vital role in identifying and developing cost effective low carbon energy systems to meet future energy demand and support carbon reduction objectives.

This will mean that local residents and businesses can have greater confidence that their investments in building fabric, heating systems and controls will be compatible with local network development and the cost of low carbon energy supplies.

Integrated IT
Of course, it’s vital that these technologies can work together, in order to build networks and an integrated system. IT solutions must provide the foundations for multi-party systems integration, in order to enable local infrastructure investment decisions.

There’s also the opportunity to use IT to help us to gain a better understanding of the business models that will make commercial deployment of smart heating systems more likely, and identify barriers that could prevent an effective transition to this future.

Our zero carbon future
These steps will help the UK government and industry make the urgent decisions that are required about future energy systems. By 2050, the UK should be aiming for heat in UK buildings to be almost zero carbon and that means we have to make decisions on our energy systems strategy now, and start preparations. We must be looking to implement these solutions from the mid- 2020’s so this phase cannot be delayed. We should be entering a time of vigorous action to develop pilot schemes that build at scale, test the design approach and strengthen the market pull for the deployment of solutions.

It is only by acting quickly, together and with an integrated mindset that we can plan energy systems that provide consumers with low carbon heat that improves their lives and wellbeing while also hitting UK targets that have a global impact on our future.

Rebecca Sweeney is Programme Manager for the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) Smart Systems and Heat programme. The ETI is a public-private partnership between global energy and engineering companies and the UK Government. Its role is to act as a conduit between academia, industry and the government to accelerate the development of low carbon technologies.

You can find out more about the outcomes of the first phase of the ETI’s Smart Systems Heating programme at a special seminar on Tuesday 21 November at the ETI’s 10 Years of Innovation conference and exhibition.

For more information, register at