Managing Heat Decarbonisation

Despite the significance of the heat sector in terms of energy consumption and carbon emissions, as well as for health and well-being, it struggles to gain the attention of policy makers or the public when it comes to discussions about energy.  Newspaper headlines still seem to be grabbed by the electricity sector and everyone’s favourite, the latest progress (or not) of Hinkley Point C, and this despite the fact that peak heat consumption in winter reaches levels equivalent to the output of about 100 HPCs – imagine trying to build even a fraction of those.

For some time, many energy scenarios covered the sector with a reassuringly confident single statement that “we will decarbonise heat by electrification”.  This may have initially sounded attractive and boosted the share price of heat pump purveyors, but once the practicalities of this pathway came under more detailed scrutiny, some doubts began to emerge, particularly with regard to the costs and impacts on the electricity networks and in consumer premises.

Recognising the gaps in information about these costs and impacts, as well as about those for infrastructure alternatives, my co-authors and I embarked upon a research programme with funding support from the European Climate Foundation, to evaluate and compare the three main heat decarbonisation routes, electrification, low-carbon district heating and repurposing the gas grids for use with hydrogen.

Our main findings were that:

  • Energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation solutions will be needed to retrofit over 20 million existing buildings
  • new governance arrangements should be introduced to fill the current vacuum for decision making and delivery in the heat sector.  There is likely to be a need for strong city and local authority level involvement, although there is not currently the resource to do this
  •  the seasonal variation in peak heat requirements is one of the biggest challenges
  • each of the infrastructure solutions studied has a role to play, but none is a silver bullet
  • the choice of options and/or the rate of deployment may well be determined by the non‑financial impacts and disruption from the transition as well as customer acceptance issues, rather than by simple economics
  • early pilot developments should be initiated to inform the choices about each of the main infrastructure solutions.

Overall this may sound daunting, but reducing carbon emissions from heat can be made much more manageable by starting early, designing the appropriate infrastructure investment programmes and underpinning this with the right combination of incentives and regulation.


The final report was published in April 2016, the annexes of the report may be found here.

Keith recently spoke at a parliamentary seminar on energy efficiency and heat policy organised jointly by the WSBF and Carbon Connect. This event was a follow up to Carbon Connect's recently published Future Heat Series Part 2 - Policy for Heat and the WSBF's report Warmer & Greener: A guide to the future of domestic energy efficiency policy.