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Patrick Mooney explores the alternatives to traditional heating

At a recent housing conference I heard an expert warn his audience that we better get used to heating our homes with something other than gas, because by 2050 this energy source would no longer be available for domestic purposes.

To be perfectly honest I was shocked and I suspect many others in the audience were too judging by the looks on their faces as I glanced around the hall.

We have all heard the warnings about global warming - the relentless use of carbon based fossil fuels and their dangers to the planet and our continuing existence, but I don’t think any of us could recall being told before that we only have another 30 years to use this invaluable resource.

Safety and environmental concerns

What on earth are we supposed to do without it? And what are the alternatives because 2050 is not that long away and surely we need to be doing something about this now. With a little hindsight I guess that this was probably the speaker’s intention.

Like many people I always thought of gas as a relatively clean fuel and certainly much better than coal or oil and a lot safer than nuclear. The arguments around the safety and environmental impacts of fracking has meant this potential source of energy probably needs to be sidelined for the moment and not included in any future plans unless and until those concerns are allayed.

But back to our problem about how we replace gas. After 2050 it appears what little gas is left will be used almost exclusively for industrial purposes and we will need alternative energy sources to heat our homes and cook our meals. In fact many of the alternatives are already to be found around us.

It’s also far easier to fit heat pumps during the construction process

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing management & Maintenance

Alternative energy sources

We are becoming increasingly familiar with the sight of solar panels (on roofs mainly, but now appearing in fields by the side of motorways), wind turbines (both on and offshore), hydroelectric dams and even wave and tidal barriers to make use of renewable or ‘green’ energy sources.

Most people are wary of increasing our use of nuclear power and the prohibitive cost of building new plants has seen several schemes recently hit the buffers.

Offshore windfarms are already greatly contributing to our reduced reliance on coal-fired power stations, which the Government has committed to phase out by 2025. In fact as a whole country, the UK isn’t doing too badly.

Is scaleability the problem?

Analysis by the website Carbon Brief found that renewable sources (including biomass, hydro, solar and wind power) supplied a record 33.4% of our electricity last year, up from 29% in 2017. Sadly gas remained the top source of electricity supplies at 39%, even though its contribution fell by 4% over the year.

Back in 2009 renewables contributed just 6.7% to the mix, so we’re certainly heading in the right direction. But more clearly needs to be done if we are to hit another of the Government’s targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050.

Many of the new energy sources look fine on an industrial scale, but how can we scale them down to more practical uses in our homes? We are close to reaching saturation point in terms of solar panels on our roofs, so we need to find alternatives for property owners and tenants to invest in, if we are to maintain the progress of recent years.

Are batteries a solution?

The experts predict we should be able to make much more use of lithium batteries as an energy source in our homes. These could be charged during the night, when electricity consumption is traditionally at its lowest and then switched on for use during the day. The catch is that we are an unspecified number of years away from turning the theory into practice.

There are concerns about their safety and storage at present, as the current working models are too big for the average sized home and the risk of over-heating and fires still needs to be overcome. 

The answer could lay in increasing the use of geothermal and air source heat pumps and heat exchangers which take energy from the earth or the air around us, to heat or cool our homes. These are greener than biomass heaters, which still rely on the burning of carbon-emitting products although they are far less polluting than coal.

An answer from ancient times

Geothermal energy is a powerful and efficient way to extract renewable energy from the earth through natural processes. Its use in Britain dates back to Roman times and can still be found in use in the heated spas and pools at Bath. But its use in our homes is still at a very low level.

Geothermal power requires no additional fuel to run and is therefore immune to fluctuations in fuel cost, but the capital costs of drilling into the earth are high and it’s not suitable for all types of geology. It would be unrealistically disruptive and expensive in major towns and cities, so plants need to be located on their outskirts with hot water and generated power piped in.

Finding an answer to the scaleability issue so that smaller power plants can supply districts within urban areas, tower blocks or individual homes, appears to be key.

In the meantime we have the option of using air source heat pumps and heat exchangers.

These are being installed in single properties, but the number of new installations is increasing from a very low base.

It is also far easier to fit them during the construction process to new build properties and what we really need is a low cost model which can easily be retrofitted to our existing housing stock – for use in all house types, including flats and terraced housing.

Improving domestic energy efficiency

Of course the other side of the equation is reducing our use of energy – which can benefit both the planet and our household incomes. The news from the latest English Housing Survey contains a mix of good and not-so-good news.

The positive headline is that the energy efficiency of English homes has increased considerably in the last 20 years, but more recently that progress has stalled and it has not increased since 2015.

In 2017 the average SAP rating of English dwellings was 62 points, up from 45 points in 1996. This increase was evident in all tenures. However, the increase has been slowing and there was no change in the average SAP rating of homes between 2016 and 2017 (in any tenure).

Property standards

Similarly over the last decade, the proportion of non-decent homes has declined from 35% of the overall housing stock in 2007 to 19% in 2017. This decrease was observed across all tenures, but again the rate of improvement has stalled in recent years.

There is a lower proportion of non-decent homes in the social rented sector (councils and housing associations) than in the private rented and owner occupied sectors. In 2017, 13% of social rented homes failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard compared to 25% of private rentals and 19% of owner occupied properties.

With an increased focus on the quality and safety of privately rented properties, there are more reasons for landlords to upgrade their flats and houses. But the Government needs to act decisively to ensure this focus stretches out to 2050 and beyond, and includes for the replacement of gas fired heating and cooking facilities.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine