The UK’s transition to high-efficiency low carbon buildings

Published immediately prior to the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, the Heat and Buildings Strategy sets out the government’s plan to significantly cut carbon emissions from the UK’s 30 million homes and workplaces in ‘a simple, low-cost and green way’.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy, published on 19 October, builds on the commitments made in the  2018 Clean Growth: Transforming Heating review, the Energy White Paper and 10 Point Plan. It aims to set out the strategic decisions that need to be taken in the coming decades in order to reach net zero by 2050. Like the transition to electric vehicles, decarbonising residential, commercial, industrial and public sector buildings will be a gradual transition, which will start by incentivising consumers and driving down costs.  Gradual as it may be, it is no mean feat: heating these buildings contributes to almost a quarter of all UK emissions.

The majority of buildings still rely on burning high-carbon fossil fuels for heating, hot water and cooking and have low thermal efficiency, which means that much of the heat generated is wasted. Achieving net zero means improving buildings’ fabric efficiency, changing the way we heat and cool our buildings, and improving the performance of energy-related products. It will involve large-scale transformation and wide-ranging change to energy systems and markets, including the development of UK-based, green industrial capability and capacity. It may be ‘green’, but is it really ‘simple’ and ‘low-cost’? Most certainly it will require a combination of cutting-edge technologies and innovative consumer options.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy suggests we can achieve the decarbonisation of buildings through:

  • Improving the energy efficiency of buildings; and
  • Switching high-carbon sources of heat and cooling to low-carbon alternatives (e.g. electrification of heat for buildings using hydronic air-to-water or ground-to-water heat pumps), heat networks and potentially switching the natural gas in the grid to low-carbon hydrogen.

Benefits of decarbonising our building stock

The Strategy suggests that decarbonising buildings will provide a major economic stimulus, creating new highly skilled jobs (240,000 by 2035), products, markets, and supply chains in the UK, fit for a net zero future. The benefits of more efficient, low-carbon buildings for consumers are clear: smarter, better performing buildings, reduced energy bills and healthier more comfortable environments. Furthermore, as the global market for low carbon heat, smart products, and energy efficiency grows, the government suggests that UK businesses can make use of export opportunities in sectors where we have developed a particular knowledge, experience and expertise.

Policy commitments

In order to address the carbon emissions produced in heating and powering our homes, workplaces and public buildings, the strategy details the government’s commitment to:

  • Increase the use of smart technologies;
  • Improve energy-related product policies;
  • Set minimum standards for existing homes and new builds;
  • Invest in research and development to drive innovation, improve data collection, and inform policies;
  • Move to a performance-based rating for large and complex commercial and industrial buildings to improve building energy performance;
  • Stimulate and grow heat pump, heat networks, and green finance markets;
  • Continue to research technologies which may play a smaller role in decarbonisation, such as hybrid heat pumps and bioenergy heating systems;
  • Drive cost reduction and innovation in energy efficient and low-carbon technologies;
  • Take a whole-buildings and whole-system approach to ensure decisions at any level are not made in isolation (e.g. improvements to energy performance and use of low-carbon sources of heat and cooling are considered together);
  • Clearly communicate upcoming regulatory changes so that households, businesses and industry can prepare in advance. Most relevant to our commercial and industrial clients, the government has committed to consult on minimum energy performance standards in all owner-occupied buildings and will support deployment of at least 600,000 hydronic heat pumps per year by 2028 through a proposed market mechanism;
  • Continue to consider how hydrogen may be safely and cost-effectively used to heat buildings through local trials and planning work, which will inform strategic decisions on the role of hydrogen in heating by 2026;
  • Support industry to deliver a workforce with the skills to meet net zero;
  • Reduce direct emissions from public sector buildings, in line with our aim to reduce direct emissions from public sector buildings by 75% against a 2017 baseline by the end of carbon budget 6.

By 2050, buildings should make use of a combination of technologies, to minimise their carbon emissions and maximise their energy performance, thereby achieving the best environmental impact rating possible for that building. Measures include:

  • Insulation, draught-proofing and double or triple glazing within buildings, which will reduce energy demand for heating through improving thermal efficiency.
  • Using low-carbon sources to heat all buildings
  • Heat distributors (radiators, underfloor heating) that will ensure heating appliances can work more efficiently and provide lower temperature heat;
  • Smart technologies (that respond to price signals and give the consumer more control over their demand) and more efficient building management policies to manage building energy consumption, alongside measures to better monitor energy usage;
  • Energy storage, to help provide energy when grid electricity is expensive and carbon intensive, through thermal storage, hot water tanks, phase change materials, or battery storage (either in an electric car or elsewhere on the property);
  • Efficient energy-related products that will require less energy to run than their counterparts;
  • Some buildings producing their own power through microgeneration, which can be sold back to the grid to generate income when the electricity is not needed in the home.

In 2019 the UK became the first major economy to pass laws to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.  But does the recent Net Zero Strategy and sub strategies go far enough?

For example, although the UK’s new Net Zero Strategy promises to roll out 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028, the UK government’s own advisors, the Climate Change Committee, said that it needs to jump to a million a year by 2030. What’s more, there is only funding for grants for 90,000 heat pumps over three years. Bear in mind that 1.2 million new gas boilers were installed last year alone.  A rather familiar question to any new government policy springs to mind, does it go far enough?

While critics have argued that the Heat and Buildings Strategy is lacking in ideas and a comprehensive strategy to reach net zero, Alfa Energy is not. During COP26, we will be sharing guides and discussions on everything from establishing a net zero strategy, to measuring your carbon footprint and the rise of corporate PPAs. With heaps of real life implementations, make sure you stay tuned to our social media channels if you are looking seriously at what action you need to take now.

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Samuel Clements

Sustainability Specialist at Alfa Energy Group
Samuel is an experienced energy and sustainability professional with 10 years in the industry. Samuel has helped clients manage their energy requirements and implement innovative processes, software and technology to further their carbon neutrality journey, in areas ranging from smart grid and demand response, to electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon credits. Samuel has a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with Forum for the Future, and a Bachelors in Environmental Science.

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Samuel Clements

Samuel is an experienced energy and sustainability professional with 10 years in the industry. Samuel has helped clients manage their energy requirements and implement innovative processes, software and technology to further their carbon neutrality journey, in areas ranging from smart grid and demand response, to electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon credits. Samuel has a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with Forum for the Future, and a Bachelors in Environmental Science.