Can the Built Environment Afford to Go Green?

Can we afford to be green? - Air Source Heat pumps

The UK’s built environment is under enormous pressure to meet net-zero carbon targets by 2050 and cut its use of fossil fuels in new homes when the ban is introduced in 2025. But in order for the UK to meet these aims, a huge obstacle has to be overcome – the cost of air source heat pumps. Alex Hill from Whitecode Consulting asks the all-important question: Can we afford to be green?

IT WAS only a matter of weeks ago that the Energy Saving Trust joined over 20 businesses and civil society organisations to lobby for a Fair Heat Deal which would make heating affordable for all.

Not only does this recent call to the UK government ask for air source heat pumps and insulation to be made free for fuel poor households, it requests that the cost of heat pumps be brought in line with boilers, to generally be more affordable for the average UK household. These offerings will not doubt put the UK on better footing to reaching its net zero aims, providing important support and assistance for those who need it most.

A Greener Appetite

The majority of consumers are aware of their responsibilities to make the world a cleaner place for all. A report produced by the thinktank, Ember, revealed that renewable energy generated by wind, sunlight, water and wood constituted 42% of the UK’s electricity last year compared with 41% generated from gas and coal plants together. These findings represent quite a milestone and showcase consumers are steadily weaning themselves off unsustainable heat supplies.

As time unfolds there will be a growing appetite for greener solutions. Yet, there are a few obstacles that are standing in the way. The main caveat is the cost of electricity. When I started out as an engineer around 20 years ago the cost of electricity was 8p per kilowatt. Fast forward to 2021 and the amount peaks at 17p! In comparison, the price of gas hasn’t changed much at all and has remained at the cheap price of 3p.

The reason why electricity has become so expensive is because the electrical companies are hiking up the price. They are doing so in order to cover all of the additional costs they’re accruing to decarbonise the grid.

As a result of electricity’s high costs, we are seeing some homeowners receiving extortionate energy bills each month, sums well above the average running costs. Everyone is talking about going green and being carbon neutral, but what about fuel poverty? What are the solutions? If you have a gas boiler that runs cheaply in comparison, where is the incentive for you to change your boiler and supply? The ban on fossil fuel heating is solely for new homes and does not account for the existing stock.

Some boiler manufacturers are exploring other options including hydrogen, which derives from water and has the potential to be very sustainable. It could be that this technology is another option to electricity. At the moment electricity is financially unviable for many consumers.

Eliminate the Obstacles

The drive towards electrification has highlighted a few alternative solutions to gas boilers. The ‘Future support for low carbon heat’ document, which was out for public consultation between April-July 2020, brings to the fore several low carbon heating prospects. One of these methods is air source heat pumps, a low-carbon producer of heat which has been widely tried-and-tested in the likes of Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Air source heat pumps have been lobbied and heralded as the solution to cleaner heat, yet, as they are powered by electricity, the financial burden of this form of supply will weigh heavy on consumers. It is why I and many others welcome the news that the Energy Saving Trust is actively campaigning for air source heat pumps to be made affordable. We need to do all we can to eliminate the obstacles to greener, cleaner heat.

Another topic within the air source heat pump debate is maintenance. In 15 years, a homeowner of a new-build might have to upgrade their heat pump as they would do their boiler. A new boiler would cost you around £2000 in total, yet a heat pump comes in at around £5000 at least. This is under the proviso that there are a sufficient number of F Gas-qualified installers who are licensed to service heat pumps. Many boiler installers will need to upskill, and this may come at a higher cost both for installers and homeowners.

Earlier this month, prominent UK housebuilder Taylor Wimpey featured in the news as it was revealed the housebuilder questioned the affordability of heat pumps. The housebuilder’s position was revealed through a freedom of information request by environmental charity Greenpeace. Whilst Taylor Wimpey recognised the need for urgent action to tackle the climate crisis, it raised an important concern regarding the practical implementation of heat pumps and whether we can afford to be green.

In our pursuit to be green we must take a more holistic approach and be sensitive to the significant financial burden that the cost of electricity will place on the average consumers. Whilst it is positive to see that we are steadily eliminating carbon-hungry fuel, someone has to pay for the decarbonisation of our national grid. At present the reality isn’t moving in tandem with the expectations, and if things remain unchanged, I fear it will push many into even deeper fuel poverty.

>> Read more about net zero in the news

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