Rural Homes Set To Remain Disadvantaged After Heating Decarbonisation
Opinion: Home heating accounts for 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions — so natural gas has to be phased out. Hydrogen is a possible future replacement for properties connected to the gas grid, but rural properties currently relying on oil or liquefied petroleum gas are likely to remain heating Cinderellas.
Replacing 22.5 million gas central heating boilers across the UK well before 2050, as we need to do to meet current climate change commitments, has a huge price tag. Renewables-powered heating systems are currently much more expensive than boilers heated by natural gas (well, not so natural, but it sounded such a clean product). The Committee on Climate Change has forecast a switch-over cost of £28 billion a year by 2050.
Living off the gas grid means that here in rural Wales we could not have joined the 82% of UK households with mains gas central heating (although the Energy Performance Certificate for an off-grid house that I know of states that there is mains gas central heating, a mistaken or deliberately untrue ‘fact’ – it’s important to check those certificates!).
By early 2019 it was time to replace an ancient oil boiler, which sounded like an aeroplane taking off into a rumbling thunderstorm. As well as the need to slash fossil fuel use, there was the immediate practical problem that no one’s insurance – not the household policy, not the delivery firm’s policy – would cover taking the hose from the tanker through the house to the oil tank behind.
The garden was not large enough for a ground source heat pump system with pipes in horizontal trenches (you need at least half an acre, I am told) and even more to the point, was inaccessible to the equipment needed to excavate trenches, or to dig a borehole for a vertical installation. Ground source heat pump installations are super-expensive, from above £10,000 to over £20,000 for the pump and installation, plus thousands more for the groundworks. They qualify for the Westminster Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive, which in theory could pay the majority of costs over seven years, but the homeowner or landlord has to find the money upfront first.
In the end we settled on an air source heat pump. This is costing between £8,000 and £9,000 including new, larger radiators, and for which we might receive the Renewable Heat Incentive (if we can tick all the eligibility boxes). The garden is wide enough, fortunately, because in Wales the pump units have to be at least three metres from boundaries to qualify as permitted development (in England, it’s only one metre).
Bearing these costs in mind, it is unsettling to know that the Renewable Heat Incentive closes to new applicants on April 1st 2021, and no replacement scheme has been announced. The current scheme covers ground source heat pumps, air source heat pumps, biomass boilers and biomass pellet stoves, and flat plate and evacuated tube solar thermal panels.
Maybe the government is hoping that hydrogen fuel cell boilers will soon become available, and at lower cost than heat pumps. Manufacturers are developing such boilers: in June 2019, Dutch group BDR Thermea installed what it claimed as the world’s first hydrogen-powered domestic boiler in a trial project in Rozenburg, the Netherlands. In theory, hydrogen boilers could use much of the same infrastructure as gas boilers, and households would not have to change all their pipework and radiators. The Government’s decision to ban gas boilers in new homes from 2025 should, at the very least, boost interest in hydrogen systems.
But now that the UK has left the EU, it will be fascinating to see if British firms can compete with European enterprises to perfect hydrogen home heating.
Even if they can, a hydrogen system taking over gas infrastructure will not reach the rural areas where there is no gas grid. Hard-to-heat rural homes would be disadvantaged yet again.