Heating your home
Cutting down on heating: How and why you should do it
Heating accounts for about a third of UK territorial greenhouse emissions (“territorial” means that it excludes imported goods). Our housing is old, leaky, and hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels – around 85% of UK homes use gas boilers.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the first priority has to be insulation. The CCC thinks that cutting heating demand by a quarter is realistic. This includes insulation in millions of lofts, cavity walls and solid walls.
There are government schemes to help pay for insulation. And if you pay about £50, you can get an energy performance assessor to identify your options.
Another way you can try to reduce your heating demand is by using smart heating controls, which can automatically adjust heating – sometimes room by room – from a phone or computer.
Heating your home with ethical electricity and gas
Once we’ve reduced heat demand as much as we can, we then need to supply the rest.
Most scenarios envisage electric heat pumps being the backbone of a decarbonised UK heating system because they are around three times more efficient than a standard electric heater. They will cut your emissions immediately, by a significant amount, but they aren’t cheap, although you can get help with the cost.
As for direct electric heating – it can play a small role, although if everyone used it then it would require an implausible amount of electricity. While it has traditionally been regarded as much worse for the climate than gas, the grid has now decarbonised enough that high-heat retention storage heaters, which you can heat up at night when the grid is least carbon intensive, are starting to get more ambiguous. But they won’t reduce your emissions yet.
We decided to stop covering gas boilers on our website – the boilers last for about 15 years, so buying one now will probably lock you into gas heating for a while.
We do really need to be getting off gas. The government appears to agree, as they are to be banned in new build homes from 2023 (just brought forward from 2025). However, if you do want to get a gas boiler, most of the companies that make them can be found in our guide to heat pumps.
Is bio-energy green energy?
Bioenergy is any fuel from plant or animal matter, including wood, alcohol, and biogas. We’re currently using some for heating – some people run biomass boilers, and some companies inject biogas into the gas grid.
Unfortunately, bioenergy has a huge problem, which is the amount of land that growing it takes up. This has led to a lot of concern about whether it is being produced sustainably or whether it is encouraging people to clear virgin habitat.
It also leads to the macro-level issue – whatever we do, there is only ever going to be a very limited amount of biofuel available.
And absolutely everyone wants it. They want it because it is functionally identical to fossil fuel (fossil fuels are just biofuels that were made a very long time ago) and, as any heroin addict moving onto methadone knows, when you’re trying to kick an addiction, the easiest thing to wean yourself onto is the next nearest thing.
That is why, in the long term, bioenergy really needs to be allocated to the areas which need it the most – where there are no other options. The CCC, like nearly everyone else, concludes that using much bioenergy for heating “is not the long-term best use of finite bioenergy resources”. It calculates that biogas could sustainably provide about 5% of our heating needs. This includes biogas from waste.
As a result of these issues, we have decided to stop covering biomass boilers.
Green energy options for heating your home: solar thermal, hydrogen, district heating
Solar thermal is a good technology but is limited – it can only supply a proportion of your heating needs, so you’d need to combine it with something else.
Another option is hydrogen, which could be pumped down the gas grid. Companies are starting to make ‘hydrogen-ready’ gas boilers, which could switch over to burning it. But unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. The CCC puts it like this:
“When technical feasibility is demonstrated and decisions made, production (primarily from natural gas) will require a significant infrastructure programme to build dedicated new hydrogen transmission pipelines, hydrogen storage capacity (e.g. salt caverns), large volumes of CCS [carbon capture and storage] and hydrogen production capacity.”
It concludes that once you’ve factored in everything, hydrogen is unlikely to be cheaper for society than heat pumps. So it only uses it for a small number of homes in its scenario, in combination with a hybrid heat pump.
The only other option left is low-carbon heat networks, which can be heated by waste heat from industry or decarbonised power stations, or communal heat pumps. The CCC calculates that they could work for about five million homes.
In conclusion: switch to a green gas or electricity supplier, or look into heat pumps and solar energy
It isn’t easy to keep homes warm and light without burning that congealed sunlight that was just handily lying around in the form of coal and gas and oil. But as one recent report put it: “decarbonisation of heating for the UK’s existing housing stock is possible, and can be achieved with average net investment of less than £10,000 per home”.
This guide, our guide to solar PV, and our guide to heat pumps will help lead you through the options.