We must focus on transferring to decarbonised electric heating to combat climate change, writes Chris Brown
The biggest and most urgent challenge in housing today is retrofitting our homes to make them fit for a zero carbon future.
Climate change is now a ‘this generation’ problem. It is no longer something that will only impact our children or grandchildren.
The signs of the damage we have already done to the planet are everywhere. Unprecedented high temperatures, floods and wildfires around the world, and truly scary disappearances of ice from both poles, the ‘third pole’ of the Himalayas, and closer to home in the Alps.
We no longer know if we have already triggered the first of the climate tipping points, that will cascade like dominos, leading unstoppably to planetary change that will transition through huge economic and social dislocation to the end of human life on this planet.
The better news is that we are the first generation to understand this, and we know that we are the last generation with a chance of fixing it.
Housing has been one of the biggest contributors to the desperate situation we find ourselves in and many of Housing Today’s readers, me included, have been responsible for this damage.
The biggest thing we can do now is to transition the heating of our existing homes away from burning oil and gas to decarbonised electric heating.
The milestone report this month, the second National Infrastructure Assessment 2, from the National Infrastructure Commission, the Government’s advisor, pulled no punches. Its headlines include hydrogen being a waste of time and money for home heating that should removed as an option, the need to switch off the gas mains (with no new gas connections after 2025), heat pumps for almost everyone, and a focus of public spending on the poorest in society.
It was hard hitting and right on the money, a rarity in this world of fossil funded fake news.
“For people to be able to act effectively they have to have cheap, easy, trusted solutions that deliver immediate selfish benefits - lower bills and warmer healthier homes.”
But they aren’t ‘our’ homes. No single body owns the UK’s homes. They are mainly owned by millions of families.
While most of those homeowners want to do something about the climate, when it comes to their own homes they generally aren’t aware of the changes needed, and, if they are, they either don’t know how to make them, or they have already tried and failed.
For people to be able to act effectively they have to have cheap, easy, trusted solutions that deliver immediate selfish benefits - lower bills and warmer healthier homes.
And these solutions can’t be imposed suddenly, they need to be signalled in advance and garner widespread public support.
The classic situation today is a homeowner’s 15-year-old gas boiler failing, and they ring up a gas engineer to come and fix it. Unsurprisingly, rather than being advised to go electric, they are sold a new gas boiler as an emergency purchase.
So how do we solve the problem?
The Climate Change Committee’s recent evisceration of government’s inaction is frightening.
Our choices as employees are particularly hard though young people increasingly don’t want the responsibility of working for climate damaging firms. The knowledge that property development is bad for the planet has taken a jump forward recently, though industry greenwash continues to conceal this and the Advertising Standards Authority hasn’t yet got round to removing it from the built environment sector.
The property development supply chain; architects, engineers, cost consultants, contractors and manufacturers are also currently in the cross hairs of the net-zero standard setters and will soon be forced to recognise the extent to which they help enable the threat to human life on our planet.
For most employees the best they can do is work every day to reduce the damage they and their firms are doing. Hopefully the long-awaited consultation on the Future Homes Standard will take us down a route where home heating in new build will be sorted.
If not now, when, if not us, who?
“The property development supply chain; architects, engineers, cost consultants, contractors and manufacturers are also currently in the cross hairs of the net-zero standard setters and will soon be forced to recognise the extent to which they help enable the threat to human life on our planet”
Happily, there are some heroes out there applying entrepreneurial endeavour to the immense market opportunity this challenge presents.
Almost every existing home is suitable for a heat pump and the climate damage from manufacturing the commonly used insulation materials, combined with a fast expanding and decarbonising grid, means that electrification of heat is far more important than insulation for most homes.
The innovations I’m watching with interest include Talarna, who may have found a way to circumvent the regulatory and financial constraints to retrofitting social housing by charging residents for warmth rather than gas or electricity.
“Close to my heart is the retrofit developer model where poor-quality homes are purchased vacant, often from Buy to Let landlords exiting the market, retrofitted and relet before being sold when the green premium on the house price in the UK closes in on the 15% levels typically seen across Europe.”
Another start up with a different take to most is Econic who have recognised the practical barriers to electrifying heat and are delivering hybrid heating systems that add a heat pump to an existing gas boiler (which then rarely gets turned on).
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In the new world of a decarbonised grid, automated flattening of the winter evening peak demand is critical, and a huge number of firms are trying to crack this with clever algorithms. Octopus Energy probably lead this pack and their system wide innovation is extraordinary. Their new, higher temperature, ’Cosy’ heat pump should make switching from gas straight forward.
Further afield the Irish have a nice line in One Stop Shops where homeowners can buy a retrofit package at a net of grant price from a trusted source.
And close to my heart is the retrofit developer model where poor-quality homes are purchased vacant, often from Buy to Let landlords exiting the market, retrofitted and relet before being sold when the green premium on the house price in the UK closes in on the 15% levels typically seen across Europe.
If public policy can adapt to support these private sector innovations I would be genuinely optimistic that the built environment sector can fix its problems. Let’s hope we can do it quickly enough.
Chris Brown is chief executive and founder of Climatise