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Pump it up

The Greenshirts of the Boiler Police are not going to kick in your door with their sandal-clad feet and seize, at carrot-point, your trusty old combi.

What are the two best ways of ensuring the general UK public does something you want it to? 1. Make it mandatory for them to do it. 2. Given them an incentive – preferably in cold hard cash-style – to do it.

The Government has announced that in its quest to meet our ambitious net zero carbon targets, it’s going to do a combination of the two. By 2035, no new build house will be built with a gas boiler. Instead, homes will have their heating and hot water provided by heat pumps or hydrogen boilers or whatever low carbon-bot gas technology the industry can come up with between now and then. So, heat pumps then, as hydrogen boilers are still a developing technology. On their way, and huge strides have been made by the big manufacturers but, I suspect, not far enough or fast enough strides. In any case, the Government hasn’t yet made up its mind exactly which way it wants hydrogen technology to move.  Instead, we have a £5,000 subsidy to help cushion the blow from the increased costs of installing a heat pump in place of an old gas boiler.

Both these methods have been used to good effect in the past, the former rather more successfully than the latter, of course. The condensing boiler market was bumbling along with a market share percentage in the low 10s, despite a £200 cashback offer in the mid to late 1990s. It didn’t start to take off seriously until the Building Regulations Part L in 2005 made their installation mandatory.

Now of course, the condensing boiler’s days are numbered, even if we have a whole 14 years’ notice of it. Most of the strides that the UK has made so far in reducing our carbon emissions have been made by changes to the way our energy is generated: wind farms out at sea, the huge fields of solar panels where arable farming used to be and shutting down the coal-fired power stations. The gas boiler – and, by extension gas cookers, presumably – ban will have far more of an impact on the general population and that’s who needs to be won over if this thing is going to work.

We are all very vocal about the need to do something about climate change, but not so supportive, according to various polls, about what we are actually prepared to do. The thing about a gas boiler is that we’ve got used to them. Even if you didn’t have one growing up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are you’ve got one now. And putting a combination version in meant that one could get rid of the hot water cylinder in the airing cupboard, the hot water header tank in the loft and use that space for something else. Heat pumps, however, require a tank for eater if they are to be used to provide hot water as well as heat. So, all of a sudden, the cost to install a heat pump now has to include remedial work to add water storage facilities.

This of course is about the retrofit market; the new build sector will just re-jig its designs and heat pumps will be installed from the get go. But the retro-fit market is vital if the emissions targets are going to be met. Then there’s the point that heat pumps push out heat at a lower temperature than gas boilers, which means they work best in properties that are well insulated. Many of the UK’s homes are extremely well insulated. However, a great deal more of them are not (Insulate Britain has a point).

Like every other policy that has come out of this government and the ones preceding it, the devil will be in the details. This issue isn’t going to go away. Something has to be done, we all know that whether we like it or  not. Today’s announcement is just the start. But it is, at least, a start.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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