As part of the UK Government’s stated commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, gas boilers, along with other fossil-fuel burning boilers, are to be banned in newbuild homes from 2025 under the Future Homes Standard.

Although the ban has received a widespread welcome in principle, there has been criticism. Environmental groups have criticized the ban for not going far enough in tacking the escalating climate crisis, and the construction and home-building industries have criticized it for the challenges it brings in achieving a viable home-heating alternative in such a short space of time.

Placing significant demand

Despite the criticism, the ban doesn’t go far enough; applying to newbuild homes only, with, as yet, no plans to phase out gas heating in existing homes. New heating technology has to be ready to roll out before 2025, whether it’s to 160,000 homes per year (the annual approximate figure of new homes built) or the UK’s entire housing stock of 29 million.

Despite the criticism, the ban doesn’t go far enough; applying to newbuild homes only

The Home Builders Federation, in reaction to the Future Homes Standard, has said, “It’s going to be a challenge and a huge area of work.” And it is widely acknowledged there is significant demand placed on the building and HVAC industries to produce a long-term, viable solution. Challenges include the creation of new, cost-effective designs of energy infrastructures, and implementation in time for the short deadline of less than four years away.

Gas boiler heating systems

From energy design engineers to developers, suppliers, and energy companies, everyone in the supply chain is affected in delivering a solution that UK homeowners can afford and that developers can supply. The communications challenge also cannot be underestimated, to bring along the public to the reality that homes cannot, ultimately, continue to be heated by the gas boilers they are so familiar with.  

The most likely low-carbon alternative to gas boiler heating systems is generally acknowledged to be heat pumps and heat networks, powered by renewables. It has been estimated by the Committee on Climate Change that by 2030 there will be 2.5 million heat pumps in new homes. Heat pumps offer comparable heating power to gas boilers and are powered by low-carbon electricity. Heat pumps have great potential for saving carbon; approximately 25-85 tCO2 per home over an average lifetime, reducing carbon emissions by 90%.

Existing gas system

But hydrogen is expensive to produce and although the existing gas system could be readily used for supply

But for heat pumps to provide the level of warmth, particular in winter, and summer, weather in the UK, their effectiveness relies on excellent insulation, including triple glazing and adaptations to walls, floors, and ceilings. And while there has been a drive to get our draughty homes better insulated in the UK in recent years, with various grants and funding, this will be particularly crucial for newbuilds going forward.

Hydrogen boilers could be an alternative to gas boilers. Hydrogen produces no emissions when burnt, only water and heat. But hydrogen is expensive to produce and although the existing gas system could be readily used for supply, and by consumers already familiar with a boiler system, it is not yet seen as a full solution to the replacement of gas.

Technically qualified workers

Trials are due to be carried out in the north-east with hydrogen-ready boilers. But the impending deadline and challenge for production and systems to be ready and tested, for mass implementation is unrealistic. Even before the Future Homes Standard was announced, there was an acknowledged shortage of skills. Engineering UK, in a recent survey, found that an additional 1.8 million engineers and technically qualified workers would be needed by 2025 in order to meet demand.

But the impending deadline and challenge for production and systems to be ready and tested

Nearly a third of HVAC firms have declared a skills shortage, with many feeling there is a crisis in the sector of sufficient qualified workers who can satisfy the new regulations. Now the demand is set to rise with the ban, as well as Brexit. A large proportion of qualified HVAC workers are sourced from the EU, further compounding the crisis of the skills shortage already faced.   

Zero-Carbon technologies

From imagining life without a gas boiler to a young person seeing their future career in engineering and renewable energy, effective communications and campaigns could go a long way. Targeted lifestyle campaigns, with positive, compelling case studies of homes of the future being powered by green, zero-carbon technologies could help to drive the momentum for innovation from a domestic base.

Talent strategies could also combat the reality of an ageing and diminishing workforce in HVAC and other sectors. It’s vital now, more than ever, that young people see a career in renewable and eco-living technology as, not only rewarding but futuristic, global, and sophisticated. Any alternative to gas heating has to be affordable for UK households, and therefore for housing developers to adopt. Fuel poverty is a real risk.

Energy-Saving measures

The right help needs to be in place to support the development and take-up of the alternative

According to the Committee on Climate Change, it costs £4,800 to install low-carbon heating in a new home, but £26,300 in an existing house while there are various funding initiatives for households adopting energy-saving measures, the right help needs to be in place to support the development and take-up of the alternative. Not just for newbuild homeowners, but beyond 2025 when existing households are called upon to switch.

The Home Builders Federation have said of the Future Homes Standard, “Ambitious deadlines pose enormous challenges for all parties involved including developers, suppliers, energy companies in terms of skills, design, energy infrastructure and the supply chain.”

Low-Carbon heating technology

But there is also a stated dedication to achieving what can be realistically achieved, proving that there is a genuine commitment to ensuring our brighter, cleaner future and planet with low-carbon heating technology.

The ultimate challenge now will be in Government, agencies, and industry working together, in a dedicated way, to be realistic about, and tackle the challenges across the board so the right solution for our home-heating future can be achieved, in time, and ready for a rollout for the new homes we build from 2025.

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