Why it’s so hard to say “goodbye, gas”
Gas, with its primal simplicity, has dominated heating. Something is burned, and it produces heat – and gas produces a more versatile, cleaner, and easier to manage heat than coal.
Pumped into homes, or bottled up and shipped to homes away from the grid, it’s taken centre stage for heating the UK’s homes over the last century.
Naturally, huge swathes of the UK’s infrastructure has been engineered to accommodate this all-but-miracle fuel.
That infrastructure and dependence poses a big problem or weaning ourselves off the good stuff – we built as if it would never go away.
At the same time, the UK’s net-zero target is 2050, with most of the housing stock that will be available by that date already built, and 85% of the homes already here using a gas boiler.
It’s not plausible for us to focus exclusively on heat pumps in new-builds to hit the UK’s environmental targets. Considerable adjustments to how the UK’s homes are heated, along with significant retrofitting of existing properties, will be needed.
The scale of the job isn’t lost on the people tasked to deliver it. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just removing the gas, yet the age of gas has to come to an end regardless.
Not just for the UK to meet its legally-binding environmental goals, but because there’s only so much of it left to extract around the world – one day the remaining reserves will be too expensive, and the demand for it from other sectors too great, for it to be cost-effective for use in heating homes.
Housing, and local authorities, will have to think somewhat differently to make the required changes.
Much of the discussion for heating focuses on heating individual houses, using boilers and pumps, but heating houses one at a time arguably takes up too much focus, particularly in the conversation around social housing.
Heating districts take heat from one centralised source and distribute it to a network of houses. By centralising the production of heat, individual houses and individual residents/owners aren’t responsible for maintaining their own heat generation equipment.
This hands local authorities, and social housing providers, the opportunity to pick how to generate that heat. The options are limited only by what they can access and install, meaning they can do what’s appropriate for a local area.
For urban environments, large-scale heat pumps are one of the most attractive options. Running on electricity, they can be fuelled by almost anything. Renewables, nuclear, energy from waste, or even waste energy itself can be plugged in.
While some people might rankle at the idea of not having direct control over where their heat comes from, it does open a host of options up for large-scale housing providers.
While district heating is more effective for dense, connected urban housing, other alternatives will be necessary for more disconnected areas. That may take the shape of more at-home power generation, new at-home energy storage techniques, and possibly the introduction of alternative combustible fuels – more on that later.
New heating tech
Necessity being the mother of invention, cutting-edge technologies have emerged (and are emerging) to fill the gaps left behind when gas goes.
This includes technology like infrared heating, which converts electricity into a “radiant” heat. That’s in contrast to your usual hot-water radiator, which is a hot object that sits in one part of the room and gets hot enough to heat the whole area.
Infrared, meanwhile, aims to use less energy than a radiator while heating the floor, ceiling, and walls of a room. It’s claimed that this has is a more efficient and more effective way to heat a room than a radiator, and it’s gas-free.
Graphene heating, meanwhile, aims to go a step further. A microns-thin layer of graphene paint is applied to a surface over a thin copper strip, which connects to a low-voltage transformer connected to the mains, and creates energy when the electricity is applied.
New technology is always exciting, and it will be interesting to see how the emerging technologies that aim to permanently displace the radiator take shape.
However, there is always the question of whether they’re practical at scale, or if they’re the age-old issue of a “solution looking for its problem”, if you’ll indulge the phrase.
As we’ll discuss later, new technology (or new uses for existing technology) are thrilling, but they’re unlikely to be a silver bullet to our gas problem.
As we threaten to let gas go forever, it’s only natural to ask whether there’s another fuel that could plug the gap.
Long held up as a potential future-fuel, hydrogen often comes up in these discussions. It’s certainly tempting to pin one’s hopes on entirely on hydrogen riding to the rescue, saving local authorities from a more invasive and disruptive retrofit of existing housing.
But experts are less sure. Hydrogen most likely isn’t a silver bullet, and may only play a moderate part in the transition to post-gas heating. One main limiting factor in hydrogen becoming a greater part of heating (putting aside the other downsides listed in the linked article earlier) is actually the generation of electricity itself.
Hydrogen, despite producing no carbon in its combustion, has a dirty secret. It requires a significant amount of energy to separate hydrogen from the other molecules to which it’s attached and create a portable fuel.
Creating enough of it to heat our homes (assuming there’s no sudden change to our current electricity energy mix) would generate so much excess carbon dioxide we could plausibly be better off just burning fossil fuels.
It may play a part, and it may help some communities transition away from gas where appropriate, but as we’ll discuss next, there just aren’t any easy answers to replace a fuel as easy as gas.
There are no silver bullets
As we touched on earlier, the portability and simplicity of gas fuelled its proliferation across the country, both on and off the mains grid.
Unfortunately, there’s no single replacement that works the same way gas did for every new and existing home. What’s appropriate to heat a dense urban area won’t necessarily translate easily to what works on a remote coastal town.
Every area has its own challenges, and their approaches will need to be unique and blended to suit their area, which means it’s difficult to enjoy the economies of scale.
New technologies are also in their infancy, and what looks promising might not develop at a pace that suits our needs.
While it’s a challenge, with a scale that isn’t lost on those responsible for meeting it, it will be exciting and interesting to see what the UK’s heating and electricity mix looks like by the time we reach 2050. It promises to be radically different from everything that came before it.
Thinking about your next development?
If you’re planning a building or social housing project, get in touch with LABC Warranty. We’d be delighted to help you right from the drawing board, to the work site, through to project completion.