Baseload, Bioenergy, Geothermal, Wind Power

Reducing the Impact of the UK’s Heating Problem

While the UK has backtracked on a few renewable issues of late, including cutting subsidies for wind and solar, one thing is clear— they have a target to reach for reducing carbon emissions and, at the moment, they look like they will fail to meet this for 2020. That’s less than four years away and the government’s energy and climate change policy seems in a little disarray to say the least.

Some welcome changes, however, might be just around the corner. Prior to the tumultuous aftershocks of the Brexit vote, discussions were underway on how best to control the country’s heat. Why? Because it’s one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the country. According to many experts, the UK’s heating is far too dependent on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, and we have to tackle this particular problem if we are to bring down emissions.  

According to a government report in March 2016:

“It is vital homes and businesses have access to affordable and reliable sources of heat. But we won’t meet our climate change commitments without a stronger long-term plan to move to low carbon heating. So it’s also essential that we transition to cleaner heating technologies, and in a manner that is affordable for the UK as a whole and offers value for money to taxpayer.”

Changing to ‘cleaner heating technologies’ is going to require subsidies to make them attractive to homes and businesses. While the government has cut aid for solar and wind, it might be about to increase subsidies to heat pumps and combined heat and power systems. That could not only boost the renewable heating industry but lower our carbon emissions at the same time.

Enough to meet their commitments for 2020? Perhaps not, but at least it’s a start.

The Renewable Heat Incentive

Key to encouraging people to take up these heating systems is the RHI or Renewable Heat Incentive. It came into operation back in 2011 and has been essentially a poor relative of the feed-in tariff that has been used to promote technologies such as solar and wind. Basically, for every kilowatt hour you produce through your renewable heating, you get paid a certain amount. It means both domestic and commercial installers can get a good return on their investment.

The UK government last November committed to spending more on the RHI, increasing it from £430 million to about £1.5 billion (US $577 million to $2 billion) by 2020/21. It’s hoped that this increase will make it more accessible to a wider range of consumers and provide support for the right renewable heating technologies that can lower UK carbon emissions significantly.

The decision may have been made on the back of some successes in Europe. The Norwegian city of Drammen has moved to large water based-heat pumps in recent years and has managed to reduce its carbon emissions by around 85 percent.

According to company director for Star Renewable Energy, David Pearson: “We have the know-how to switch to a low carbon, renewable source and harness the residual heat from both, natural surface water and air and industrial heat waste.”

For many clean energy experts in the UK, the government has spent a disproportionate amount of time developing energy production from solar and wind while also finding clever ways to minimize the impact of using gas. Moving to renewable technologies, such as heat pumps, particularly for new builds, is going to be a major sea change.

Despite its often erratic energy policy in recent years, the UK government is committed to decarbonization. They also believe that cleaner heating will help save on fuel bills for users and also tackle fuel poverty. Promoting wider access and making sure that it is affordable is going to be a challenge, however. The experience of the solar and wind markets, which have felt that the rug was pulled from under them in recent years, might temper enthusiasm unless some guarantees come with the RHI proposals.

It’s hoped that their reforms, which could come into effect in the next year or so, will drive an uptake of new technologies that are not solely gas or electricity dependent. These technologies include heat pumps as well as larger scale biomass projects. It’s likely that the range of products that are suitable for the RHI will increase, but this has yet to be confirmed. Neither has the way the UK government intends to get ‘value for money’ — often a neat caveat for inaction — been fully revealed.

Whether most of the UK population will be using heat pumps or solar thermal in the future rather than gas still is unclear. The changes to the RHI and the recent review have been greeted by a positive reaction on the whole. It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will follow through on all its proposals and deliver the decarbonized economy that could greatly reduce its emission by 2020.

Steven Meredith is a writer for The Renewable Energy Hub UK, a free source of renewable energy information and home to the most comprehensive renewable energy installer listings directory and industry eCommerce environments in the UK.

Lead image credit: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz | Flickr