Over one month into the national lockdown, many of us are starting to reflect on the lives we used to lead. Suddenly, the rat race has come to a standstill and put an end to the long commutes and unnecessary meetings, giving us more time and flexibility throughout the day.
With 32.6 million of us now working remotely compared to just 1.7 million prior to the pandemic the way we think about our homes is changing. Even with all the challenges this adjustment has brought over the last few weeks, a UK Gov poll has indicated that people don’t want life to go back to ‘normal’ with over half of respondents hopeful that many of the lockdown-induced changes will stick.
This period of reflection is also giving us an opportunity to change the way we treat the planet, particularly when it comes to the way we generate and use energy. We’re breaking records for coal-free power generation that haven’t been seen World War 2, renewable energy is thriving, energy demand is down by around 20% and the carbon intensity of the grid has plummeted. All of these trends must continue if we are to stop our contribution to climate change.
With many now aware of the lifestyle and environmental advantages of lockdown, combined with the lower carbon emissions, it is easy to think that we’re on the right track to net zero. However, the WMO Secretary General is less hopeful, indicating that “Whilst COVID-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems and economies for centuries”. So, we must act now to facilitate permanent change and ensure we come out of this pandemic greener.
Heating equates to 40% of our energy consumption and a third of emissions in the UK, but both awareness of this and action to address it is insufficient. By 2035 at the latest all new heating systems will need to be low carbon and yet a 2019 study by the Energy Saving Trust found that over two-thirds of those purchasing a new heating system do not ask their installers about low carbon alternatives.
Switching to heat pumps offers a renewable, cost effective way to utilize the low carbon electricity being generated to deliver warm, comfortable homes. This has been recognized by the Government and heat pumps are becoming increasingly popular with homeowners. This year, we have seen the Government launch the electrification of heat demonstration project which will see 750 heat pumps installed in homes across the country. Moreover, Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) applications are at their highest quarterly level for over four years with 85% of applications in March for Air Source Heat Pumps. Whilst this is encouraging government must continue play a role in enabling households to make the transition.
Last week The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a new consultation on Future Support for Low Carbon Heat. This much awaited consultation has been cautiously welcomed by industry. With the domestic RHI expected to end in March 2022, there is an urgent need to ensure that households are supported throughout the 2020s as we emerge from the lockdown to switch to low carbon heat and phase out fossil fuels. In 2017, the Government committed to phasing out high carbon fossil fuels in the 2020s and this publication is a key step in achieving that goal.
The proposed funding mechanism is a positive improvement on the current RHI scheme which uses a tariff system, with an upfront payment of £4,000 is likely to be a much more attractive proposition for many households. The 2-year grant scheme will be targeted towards households and small non-domestic buildings and will primarily fund heat pump installations.
Whilst the introduction of the Clean Heat Grant is welcome, it is just not enough on its own. The impact assessment estimates that the grant will lead to 21,700 ASHPs and 2,600 GSHPs being installed over the 2 years however, the Committee on Climate Change in the Fifth Carbon Budget central scenario state that 2.3 million homes should have heat pumps by 2030. It is clear that more is needed to phase out fossil fuels and meet our net zero commitments and whilst this is an important piece of the jigsaw, it doesn’t complete the puzzle. We need to see a holistic policy framework which recognizes the value of low carbon heating in homes, encourages uptake in the able to pay sector and helps the fuel poor transition to less polluting systems.
We will come out of this pandemic different. As we work through this health crisis and see businesses and government come together with the public to achieve the impossible, it is critical that our recovery is green. This means investing in low carbon energy projects, and in our homes and businesses to make them sustainable and ensure that we are more resilient. It is great to see that in this time of crisis, the government is prioritising decarbonisation, however as a sector we have our role to play in enabling this transition and helping the UK achieve the net zero ambition as we return to the ‘new normal’. 2020 was meant to be the year of climate change action and I believe it still can be.
About the author
Phil Hurley is Managing Director of NIBE Energy Systems Limited, part of NIBE AB based in Sweden NIBE Value their Nordic heritage by reaping the renewable energy of nature, and by combining it with new smart technology we can offer effective solutions that protect people and nature. Our wide range of products provides your home with cooling, heating, ventilation and hot water with minimal impact on the environment – so that together we can create a more sustainable future.