Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the future of heating have to recognise, in our more reflective moments, that the topic is not at the front of most people’s minds. That gives plenty of space for enthusiasts from various parts of industry to debate the merits of their solutions to the complex and tricky question of how we decarbonise the way we heat our homes, hot water, businesses and industrial processes.
The downside is that it is all too easy to lose sight of what consumers want from their heating system in the first place. In May this year Energy Networks Association decided to work with polling company YouGov to find out what consumers think is important about the way they heat their homes and hot water now, and what they view as important if they look to change that in the future.
When thinking about how their home is currently heated, 93 per cent of people think that it is important that the way they do so is cost effective – that will come as little surprise to anyone. But digging down a little more into attitudes provides some interesting detail. Almost 9 out of 10 (89 per cent) of people think it is important that their home heating is able to provide instant heat and hot water and 84 per cent believe that it is important that they are able to control that at short notice. Practical considerations are important too, with 71 per cent of respondents saying that it is important that their current system takes up minimal space. Sixty-eight per cent believe that it is important that it has a low carbon footprint.
Whilst having a low carbon footprint may not score as highly as other factors, 75 per cent of people support the government doing more to prioritise the production and use of domestic green gas here in the UK over fossil fuel gas that is imported from abroad, mirroring the high levels of public support that we’ve seen for renewable electricity generation in recent years. With enough biomethane capacity on our gas distribution networks to heat around 330,000 average homes, without any change to their systems or behaviour, green gas is already providing a quiet revolution in UK heating.
When thinking about looking to change how they heat their home in the future, nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of consumers believe that the cost of the energy bill was the most important factor, but 78 per cent believe that it is important to have the ability to switch energy supplier.
So, what does this all mean?
The biggest challenge facing the government in decarbonising heat is that many of the solutions proposed will require changes at a domestic level in a way that simply hasn’t been required for the decarbonisation of electricity. Part of the reason why Ministers have grappled with the question of heat decarbonisation policy for so long is because of the political challenges that will create.
If the government is to maintain credibility and political support for decarbonisation policies, then solutions have to meet public expectations. They have to be not only cost-effective and convenient – they need to deliver decarbonisation in the least disruptive way possible and maintain the extremely high reliability that customers are used to, even in the harshest winter.
Our energy networks have a vital role to play in providing that. Network operators are committed to creating a cleaner, smarter, more flexible and more efficient energy system. Evolving both our gas and electricity networks to help decarbonise our economy could save consumers as much as £214 billion by 2050 compared to a full or near-full electrification scenario.
A whole system approach based on the decarbonisation of both our gas and electricity networks and the integrated use of new technology will not only help deliver these savings – it will also create a platform for a whole range of different low carbon heating products for consumers to choose from, whilst enabling them to continue to choose the energy vector and supplier best suited to meet their needs. Having that choice will be key if we are to have a government policy that retains public support for decarbonising heat.