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Pumps and pragmatism – a decarbonisation policy which reflects the new reality

Credit: Alamy


5 min read Partner content

As the UK seeks to bring about the transition to low carbon heating, it’s critical policymakers properly understand the diverse needs of the UK’s building stock and put technology inclusive policy levers in place to support all consumers.

The government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy overlooks the unique challenges of decarbonising off-grid properties and focuses on the promotion of heat pump systems as the preferred technology. The strategy sets out that from 2026 off-grid homes will not be able to replace fossil fuel boilers with new ones, with the expectation that these households will install heat pumps instead.

Though phasing out traditional fossil fuel oil boilers in homes is a critical step in securing a net zero future for Britain, heat pumps are not, and can’t be, the only solution – because they are simply not the most viable for many households. The government must consider other low cost, green alternatives to ensure that households and businesses – in particular rural households and businesses – are not treated unfairly or left behind.

Heat pumps work most effectively in properties which are highly energy efficient and whilst that does not present a significant problem for the majority of households, off-grid oil-heated homes are typically older, larger and poorly insulated.  For these properties, the initial £11,000 cost of the heat pump combined with expensive and disruptive energy efficiency upgrades can reach over £20,000.

Ultimately, the Government’s ambition to deliver a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ will only be realised if green energy solutions are made accessible, affordable and attractive to all households and businesses - including the 1.7 million oil-heated properties across the UK.  Indeed, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it is crucial that the costs of the green energy transition are properly understood, minimised, and distributed fairly; as such, the case for pragmatism has never been stronger.

There’s no denying heat pumps have a central role to play and, when installed in suitable properties, make a sensible choice for low carbon heating. That’s why OFTEC is actively supporting the technology through new training course to equip technicians with the skills they need to install heat pumps in commercial and domestic properties.

It’s not the technology that’s the issue, rather it’s the UK’s housing stock. Instead of pursuing an exclusionary one-size-fits-all approach, it’s important policymakers adopt a policy of neutrality when considering low carbon heating and champion the delivery of the right solution for the right building. This not only increases the potential for innovation in the development of other alternatives, but it gives the government more flexibility in how it reaches its milestone target of net zero by 2050.  

As noted in the British Energy Security Strategy: “our homes are our castles – people want choices regarding how they improve them”. Expanding the range of low carbon energy alternatives advocated by the government is just one way to provide more meaningful choices to consumers in how they decarbonise their homes. In a recent survey conducted by OFTEC, two thirds of respondents commented that having a choice in which low carbon heating system they installed in their homes was 'extremely important' to them.

One such alternative to heat pumps are renewable liquid fuels such as Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO). The fuel has the potential to play a critical role in the energy mix as a solution that is significantly more appropriate for certain types of buildings – namely off-grid, oil-heated properties.

The fossil-free fuel is made from used cooking oil and does not contribute to deforestation. A recent report commissioned by the trade association UKIFDA outlined that the availability of the fuel will far outweigh potential demand by 2030 which means the UK heating oil market can easily be accommodated within the overall requirement. It’s important to note fuels considered to be in conflict with demands for food and feed crop feedstock were excluded.

HVO supports decarbonisation at a fraction of the cost of transitioning to a heat pump. Households can keep their existing boiler and tank and adopt the fuel following a conversion that costs no more than £500 and which can be completed as part of a routine service. As a result, they immediately benefit from an 88% drop in emissions.

It’s a hassle free solution for consumers, particularly during a distress purchase scenario when converting to a different system takes time households simply don’t have. HVO also does not rely on properties being well-insulated and thus households, businesses, and the government do not have to finance any additional energy efficiency improvements.

Alongside UKIFDA and the wider industry, OFTEC has been running a joint demonstration project that has evidenced the viability of HVO as a cost-effective and technically straightforward alternative. From schools to churches and pubs, over 100 oil heated properties have successfully converted to the fuel. This project has provided working proof that renewable liquid fuels can offer sustainable and affordable solutions, and demonstrate a ‘quick win’ for the government with immediate drops in carbon emissions.

The industry is ready to rollout HVO at scale if the government can put in place the appropriate policy mechanisms. Through HVO, heat pumps and pragmatism, off-grid households can have a genuine choice on the most suitable low carbon solution for their home. Understanding the need to support multiple technological solutions as part of the decarbonisation process, OFTEC is embodying tech neutrality and it is essential that policymakers replicate this approach.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to decarbonisation. Whilst it may be easier to identify heat pumps as a blanket solution to all the UK’s decarbonisation woes, this does not account for real world economic and social challenges which will exclude millions of households. It’s time to accept the new reality and adjust course.

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