Future heating technology: the complex path to decarbonisation
Adam May, Commercial Director, Wolseley Group
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the clock is ticking on the UK’s drive to achieve net zero carbon emissions, and never has energy and climate been in such sharp focus, and rightly so. As heating in buildings accounts for around 20 per cent of all emissions within the UK, it is also abundantly clear that a domestic heating transition to cleaner energy is central to any net zero strategy.
The UK has almost 29 million homes, as well as a couple of million other buildings such as offices, hospitals, shops and warehouses, with around 85 per cent of households using a gas boiler as their primary heat source. With gas and oil boilers to be banned from all new-build homes from 2025, change is coming and the potential for future heating technologies is enormous as are the opportunities they present to the trade.
If we are serious about pushing on with the drive to decarbonise, it is essential that we have a firm grasp of the heating technologies available to us so that we can be at the forefront of this transition. The good news is that there are an increasing number of options available, however they are also all at differing stages of development and price.
Some of the main technologies currently under review include electric heat pumps, hydrogen, and heat networks, all of which need to be scrutinised and ultimately deployed in the most effective way in the future. What is clear is there will be no one single solution for heating, so for the foreseeable future, the building and heating trades will need to increase their knowledge and expertise across a broad range of solutions.
Electric heat pumps are an established technology and the Government would like to increase installation to 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028. In effect, the total number of installed heat pumps will need to hit eight million by 2035 to help reach the UK’s net zero targets. For heat pumps alone, it is anticipated that we will need 30,000 engineers to meet the targets laid out by the Government. One of the clearest barriers at the moment is affordability due to relatively high installation costs, but it is hoped government subsidies, increasing availability in the market, and innovation will help drive down the costs.
Hydrogen has been talked about more frequently recently. In 2023, the Government is deciding whether to allow blending of up to 20 per cent hydrogen into the gas network, with a further decision on rolling out hydrogen for wider home heating in 2026. Many believe that hydrogen has the potential to offer a supplementary form of power - providing a ‘topping up’ service to new homes that are serviced primarily by a heat pump - upwards of five million homes could utilise this hybrid system, offering an unparalleled efficiency in heating.
Heat networks, or district heating, is already established, with around 17,000 networks supplying 500,000 homes in the UK. Its premise is relatively simple: substitute a boiler in every home for a single heating system that a community can rely on via a system of highly-insulated pipes. The central energy source is relatively technology ambivalent and therefore can adopt a number of strategies to support a net zero approach.
A big part of what we’re doing at Wolseley is ensuring that we have the leading propositions in these technologies, that we understand them fully, and that we support our customers in making choices around products and services that will improve their environmental performance and be fit for the future. We have a responsibility to not only be part of, but also help drive the UK to a net zero future.
There will need to be a balance of breadth and depth of expertise and specialism across the heating spectrum, and close collaboration between the entire supply chain is vital to drive and deliver the solutions required along this complex path to decarbonisation, whilst also educating end consumers to adopt these technologies as part of their heating solution.