Heat electrification just requires the breakdown of government barriers

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To kick off our series of regular columns from electro-technical association BEAMA, Strategy Director Kelly Butler tackles heat electrification.

In the past week BEAMA has published a range of campaign documents around the topic of Net Zero and electrification – calling on Whitehall to act quickly in order to avoid missing the opportunity for manufacturing investment which can open up a £1 trillion global market.  Yes, the opportunity really is as big as that. But the UK is behind in the race to secure the supply chains necessary through a lot of inertia in our own home market.

Now, Net Zero is a huge subject and way beyond the scope of a short article, but what about electrification?  How are we doing in the UK with respect to heat electrification for example?  Well, the short answer is ‘It’s slow progress’.  Let’s look at some of the reasons for this and how we can switch customers and installers on to a new footing with a fuller range of heat technologies.

Our technology focus is far too narrow

When we think of heat electrification we automatically think of heat pumps. It is a great technology and it’s suitable for over 80% of the UK housing stock.  However, UK sales are pretty dormant, at around 60,000 units annually, due to a variety of issues around network connections; perceived high technology price; question marks over performance; and, arguably, concern over electricity pricing.

As we know, some of these barriers are based on misleading information, so there is work to be done on setting the record straight, but my question is: Why are we only talking about heat pumps?

What about the 5% of homes that are suitable for ultra-modern storage heaters, which have the added benefit of being linked to innovative flexibility offerings from energy suppliers?  That is 3 million units right there which can condition us towards electrification.

Or what about considering smart thermal (boiler) stores?  These are suitable for 20-30% of homes, from smaller flats up to 2–3-bedroom semi-detached houses.  The attractiveness for the installer is that this technology is easily backward-compatible with existing heat systems.

Perhaps we should be considering a thermal hydro-store, using phase change technology, which is suitable for up to 100% of homes?  These use less space than a conventional cylinder to deliver up to four times equivalent thermal hot water – an important point as we try to tackle the issues of ripped-out cylinders. They can work as part of an integrated system including boilers, heat pumps, modern storage heating and smart thermal stores.  Most importantly, they facilitate whole house system integration for electrification using low carbon heat sources, and PV and associated battery storage.

Our energy pricing is all wrong for electrification

For many decades we have been conditioned to believe that gas is cheaper than electricity, which has been historically true.  But the odds have been stacked against electric, given around 18% of the tariff we are offered includes indirect taxation through various energy levies. The Government has committed to address this imbalance, but it needs to move fast if we are to start the journey towards conditioning customers and making the case for electrification beyond just boiler upgrade subsidies.  Cheaper electricity is a big news story and focuses the mind – but it needs Government action.

Our advice signals are either flawed or non-existent

The Energy Performance Certificate process is driven by a reduced data set of the Government’s Standard Assessment Procedure, aka SAP.  The Government wants us to go electric but yes, you guessed it, it does not include the full range of technologies I have outlined above.  Moreover, where it has included a technology like heat pumps, its calculation penalises you for installing them (as the algorithm is based on fuel cost rather than carbon saving).  Now that is crazy.  We are actively disincentivising consumers to make the choices we need them to make.  But it is easily solvable: so it is over to the Government.

We are not moving fast enough to deliver the supporting infrastructure

Electrification of heat will increase peak electricity demand.  That is a given, but it will be manageable with smart heat technologies that are able to flex demand based on available supply.  However, to achieve that, we need the grid capacity to connect to and this is currently nowhere near accelerating to the volume of connections that is required.

The network operators are regulated to roll out grid capacity but we have issues around planning policy and also we need stronger enforcement of the investment planning from the networks.  In tandem, we are behind our targets for the smart meter roll out that will enable this flexibility for any electric smart technology to help balance the grid.  Again, it’s over to the Government…

This may all sound very negative, but it isn’t meant to.  What we are saying at BEAMA is that we have the technologies for heat electrification we need right now, but only the Government and enforced regulation can tip the market towards a position where it is seen as a good thing.

Once consumers receive consistent quality of advice, fair pricing and technology choices supported by funding from, say, the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, we are set fair for change.  Most importantly, installers will hopefully embrace a more balanced set of technologies and market conditions to help them diversify away from what they see as the tried and trusted gas (or oil) boiler.