How can we get our heating to net-zero?

Today, most of us mainly use fossil fuels to heat our homes. According to ESC, that makes up 31% of our total household carbon footprint.

That means to achieve 2050 net-zero emission targets, big changes are needed.

There are different solutions for different places in the UK, and modelling from ESC for the report shows that by 2050 we’ll likely rely on a mix of four low-carbon heating technologies:

  • Electric heat pumps - 60%

  • Electric resistive heating - 7-12%

  • District heating - 20%

  • Hydrogen boilers - 8-16%

Making the change to low-carbon heating

Every gas and oil boiler in the UK will need replacing with a low-carbon heating system by 2050. To stand a chance of getting there, at least 300,000 need to be installed per year over the next decade. The Government has planned for 600,000 a year by 2028.

But fewer than 1 in 10 homeowners (9%) plan to switch to low-carbon heating when they replace their current boiler.

Understandably, most homeowners don’t want to incur the cost or deal with significant upheaval when they’re happy with their current heating.

To win over householders, low-carbon options need to be more accessible, affordable and appealing.

Tackling the cost of low-carbon heating

The Government’s Climate Change Committee recently outlined that the cost of retrofitting a typical home with a heat pump costs around £10,000. That’s out of reach for many so it's going to need prices to come down and grants or incentives to encourage take up. While some schemes do exist today, more support is going to be needed.

One way could be to remove VAT on energy efficient products – such as heat pumps or home batteries – which will lower the cost for customers. That’s something we’ve proposed to the Government.

Heat pumps work best in efficient homes. We’re investing in home improvement measures, spending £25m a year as part of the Government’s ECO scheme to install insulation in the least efficient homes across the country. This will reduce energy usage, emissions and bills for millions of homes.

One thing is for sure. Getting to net-zero will need a concerted effort on the part of the Government, manufacturers and energy companies to help homeowners switch both affordably and easily. At Shell Energy, we’re committed to playing our part.

A closer look at possible solutions

Let’s look at low-carbon heating systems in a little more detail:

Heat pumps

Heat pumps – which take heat from the ground or air and transfer it into our homes - will likely be our main solution. But how does a heat pump work?

Think of it like a refrigerator in reverse - moving or pumping out heat from one place to another.

They do use electricity, but can be really efficient – turning one unit of electricity into three units of heat by extracting the extra energy from the air or ground (compared to the most efficient gas boilers which turns one unit of gas into less than one unit of heat).

District heating

District heating is more of a community solution. It takes energy released as heat from various sources (such as geothermal or solar) and then connects them to homes through a system of highly insulated pipes.

Due to their nature and the pipework system, they work particularly well in dense urban areas.

In fact, some homes in the UK are already connected to district heating.

But right now it isn’t a realistic option for most, as they simply can’t connect to a heat network. A lot of infrastructural investment is needed in this area to get to 2050 targets.

Hydrogen boilers

Hydrogen offers a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuel for powering boilers. It’s possible to deliver hydrogen gas through the existing gas network provided investment is made to upgrade it and convert existing boilers.

There are two ways to produce hydrogen. The first is from natural gas, with the carbon emissions captured and stored underground. The second is through electrolysis, running renewably generated power through water to release hydrogen.

Both methods are expensive, but Shell is exploring and investing in research and development for both.

Shell is creating a green hydrogen hub in the Port of Rotterdam and planning to build a 200 MW electrolyser which is intended to produce about 50,000 – 60,000 kg of hydrogen per day. This could pave the way for hydrogen-based heating here in the UK.

Electric resistive heating

Electric resistive (or resistance) heating is essentially an electric heater or radiator. All the electricity used is converted to heat, which makes it 100% energy efficient (although less than a heat pump).

Electric heating does provide more control - each heater can be adjusted individually giving true room-by-room heating control.

It’s also less disruptive - you don’t need to install a new heat pump and you don’t need a boiler or traditional heating pipes.

On the downside, the cost per unit of heat is more expensive than a heat pump or traditional boiler.

Want to know more?

You can find out more about the challenges – and solutions – in getting to net-zero below.

Read the report in full

To read more of the report from ESC, commissioned by Shell Energy, you can download the executive summary (PDF, 320kb) or the report in full (PDF, 1.2Mb).

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