Fuelling our future

If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.

What’s that white box on the wall?” asked an American friend walking into the kitchen in my old house for the first time. She had trouble believing that the little white box was responsible for providing all the heating and hot water for the house, even if it was only a 3-bed semi. To Americans, heating is provided by a huge boiler in the basement, whether it’s one for the single house or for the entire apartment building.

UK houses, however, rarely have basements as such and therefore we tend to be wedded to our gas boilers. In fact, some 85% of British homes are connected to the grid and it’s a major market sector. Boilers, pipes etc are worth something in the region of £28 billion.

For how long though is the question? This government, like others before it, is committed to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and its energy white paper, published in December announced that by the mid-2030s gas boilers would be phased out altogether. Mid 2030s sounds ages away but it really isn’t. Especially as  it seems that this week will see the Prime Minister announcing new climate change targets, committing the country to cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

It’s a tall order, but it does need to be done. The bar has been set pretty high, which is great. We’re a first world nation, we should be setting the standards. Though it might make it easier all round if every nation followed suit. No amount of Home Counties hybrid Volvo can counteract the emissions from gargantuan coal-fired power stations being built on the other side of the planet. 78% is a huge target and it will only happen if we make serious, permanent changes to the way we do things. Unfortunately for many people, that means doing things very differently. It means replacing high-powered boy racer cars with electric or hybrid models, few of which yet have the power or stamina to please the petrolheads. It probably means reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products and it certainly means heating our homes with low carbon, low energy fuels.

The built environment accounts for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions which means that this industry is going to be leading the charge towards zero carbon. Something, to be fair, it has already been doing for some time. Boilers-makers Baxi and Bosch are already part of the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen along with energy company Shell, the gas network firms Cadent, SGN and Northern Gas Network. Hydrogen, once thought of in sci-fi terms as ‘the Fuel of Tomorrow’ actually is the fuel of, if not tomorrow then certainly the day after. However, it can be expensive to produce, which means it will be expensive to buy, putting householders’ bills – and probably their backs – up.

Hydrogen is one branch of the new energy tree, heat pumps is the other, seen by many on the environmentalism front line as the best option.

None of these options are without their problems of course, the most immediate one of which is cost, followed by home-owner inertia. If I don’t have to replace my perfectly serviceable boiler then why on earth should I? Especially if the alternative is more expensive. Heat pumps may take energy from the air (or ground), which is free, but thy require power, namely electricity, to actually convert the energy into a useable form. Lots of it. Someone I know has just had one installed and when we had that Easter cold snap said she was horrified at how much electricity they were using just to get enough hot water to wash up.

Then there’s the fact that heat pumps actually work best in properties where there is a hot water tank in order that householders can have hot water as well as heating. After decades of persuading householders into the combi boiler lifestyle,  good luck getting them to stick a tank and an airing cupboard back into the box-room that’s become the spare room. If you are in one of the millions of picturesque but draughty period homes that are a nightmare to insulate to the standard required for a heat pump  to work to their admittedly excellent maximum efficiency, you are unlikely to be first in the queue to put a pump in.

I suspect that what we will get as we move towards our target of the low carbon future, is a combination of new technologies to cater for the huge range of property types and energy requirements that our quirky little land has developed over the decades. Up-to-date, trust-worthy technical information, readily available throughout the supply chain is going to be vital and merchants are in the best place to talk to their customers – and even those customers’ customers if necessary, about the best way to heat their homes and safeguard the planet. Manufacturers, consumer groups, installer groups, merchants , and industry trade associations need to be working together to ensure that reducing our carbon emissions doesn’t see us throwing the baby out with lower-temperature bath-water.

Alas, the cynic in me wonders whether, seeing as the UK hasn’t got anywhere near meeting any of the previous climate change targets, this one  will be any different.



About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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