Friday, 19 June 2020

Decarbonising Heat post-Pandemic

Written by Andy Parker

As we emerge from lockdown, one of the few things which won’t have changed is meeting net zero emissions by 2050. Home heating contributes a significant 14% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions and for rural ‘hard to treat’ homes this decarbonisation problem is acute.


Tackling carbon emissions in rural homes now takes place against the backdrop of government’s unprecedented and vital expenditure combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, with further government investment required to get the economy back on track. Many households’ finances are in a parlous state so measures that place excessive cost on the individual are likely to be unpopular. This is particularly the case for rural areas, where tourism plays a vital role in local economies and unemployment is set to rise.

With both state and individuals’ finances suffering, it’s vital that all viable options for decarbonising rural homes are on the table. Heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps, biomass and green gas are all needed. This is not the time for government to be picking winners and stifling market innovation.

We must also look seriously at how the cost of transition is paid for - ensuring it’s fair for consumers. Government is proposing £4k grants to help consumers fit low carbon heating, such as electric heat pumps or biomass boilers. But with BEIS estimating costs of these systems at £10k and £18k respectively, many simply won’t be able to afford this high upfront spend. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, YouGov polling suggested only 4% of rural homeowners would spend over £5k on a new low carbon heating system.

Rural homes, where energy efficiency levels are often poor, present a particular challenge – only 3% of rural homes are at EPC level C or higher. In many cases, the cost of upgrading rural properties so they are ready for low temperature heating systems - such as electric heat pumps - can run into the tens of thousands. Again, even if consumers are prepared to tolerate the disruption and aesthetic changes associated with deep energy efficiency retrofit measures (such as external wall insulation), who is going to meet this cost?

So what more can be done? ‘BioLPG’ – or biopropane – is already used here in the UK and elsewhere as a direct, low carbon alternative for LPG boilers, meaning no disruption for consumers. And unlike biomass, bioLPG produces very low levels of NOx, SOx and particulates. It also saves carbon immediately; no need to wait for those expensive and disruptive energy efficiency improvements or fitting larger radiators. Whilst a boiler using bioLPG is typically more expensive to run than a heat pump, the £2k installation costs compared to higher costs of installing a biomass boiler or heat pump actually means the total cost of bioLPG heating is lower.

BioLPG can also be combined with a smaller – therefore cheaper - heat pump as part of a hybrid system. The bioLPG boiler provides back up in a cold snap if the heat pump alone won’t keep you warm; you don’t need to find space for a hot water tank as you do with a heat pump system; and in the future you could help balance the electricity network by using your bioLPG boiler (rather than heat pump) when electricity demand is high - and you’d probably get paid for doing so. This could be very useful for rural electricity networks, especially as we see more electric vehicle charging at home.

So where do we source this fuel from? Most of today’s bioLPG, which Calor has been supplying since 2018, comes as a by-product from biodiesel production. But in the future more will come from the production of sustainable aviation fuels – which are already being used to decarbonise long-haul flight. There are also numerous other potential sources of bioLPG and we are actively funding multiple research projects with UK universities so we can bring costs down for consumers. Indeed, we have already invested millions of pounds in bringing bioLPG to market without any subsidy, just to prove we can do it.

Now, we need government’s support. To go further and help decarbonise more ‘hard to treat’ homes, it’s critical bioLPG is recognised by the new Green Gas Support Scheme which the BEIS consultation proposes. Currently this only applies to green gas for injection to the gas grid - which simply isn’t fair on rural communities who can’t access the gas network. If we want green homes in green places, bioLPG is not only the best value way to get us there, but also the fairest.

Andy Parker is Head of Strategy and Corporate Affairs at Calor.