BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Time to ban gas boilers?

While there is growing acknowledgement in the UK construction industry that gas boilers will not be around for much longer, what will replace them?

Author:

  • Jon Ponting

03 December 2020

© Energist UK

Various news sources have confidently suggested that 2025 is the year that an outright ban on gas boilers in UK new buildings will kick in.

The story originated with then UK chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring statement in 2019, when he said: “We will introduce a Future Homes Standard (FHS), mandating the end of fossil-fuel heating systems in all new houses from 2025.” At the time, it sounded as though he misspoke. There had certainly been hints previously that oil and coal were in the firing line, but never the gas supply.

The UK government’s Clean Growth Strategy 2017 suggested that new homes that are off the grid should be banned from using oil or coal heating systems from the mid-2020s, and that low-carbon heat networks would be rolled out to help meet demand. Then, in January 2019, the government’s Clean Air Strategy suggested an outright ban on oil and coal heating.

But it was the independent Committee for Climate Change’s annual report in 2019 that took the leap and made the first recommendation for new homes to be gas-free from 2025.

The proposal means nothing without regulation, however, and 20 months on from Hammond’s speech carbon emission targets for new buildings in England and Wales haven’t been tightened, while more than 1.6m gas boilers continue to be installed in the UK every year.

Energy supply emissions

So is it viable to end fossil fuel heating in new UK buildings by 2025? If we stop using gas and oil to heat our homes, the only mainstream alternative is electricity. But in 2019 – according to figures from Ofgem – we relied on fossil fuels to generate around a third of our electricity, so in effect we would be phasing out mains gas to switch to an electricity network that still cannot do without gas.

In the long term, however, the shift to electrical heating would be a sensible strategy. Our electricity supply has significantly decarbonised in the past 10 years – fossil fuels generated around two-thirds of our electricity in 2009 – thanks to considerable investment in offshore wind farms. We are now at the point where electricity can become a more effective way to heat our homes than mains gas, in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, research is under way to decarbonise the gas grid, with hydrogen and biogas strong contenders for an alternative fuel source. However, it is doubtful such a transition will have much impact this decade.

The FHS also aims to introduce an affordability target, a measure to ensure that the running costs of new homes are not excessive. Electricity is around 4 times the price of gas, and homes with electric heating face higher energy bills. Even a renewable electric option such as high-efficiency heat pump will not cost much less than a gas boiler; so if we are to ban gas boilers then further work is needed to find a low-cost, sustainable alternative.

Looking to the long term, the cost of producing electricity will come down as we move away from fossil fuels. With more effective demand management systems, and with the government also proposing to introduce half-hourly metering, the cost is likely fall further still.

But in the short term, does the government intend to rush into a heating transformation programme that could see an increase in energy bills?

Legislation

If the government wants to end the reign of gas boilers, it needs to introduce regulation that encourages or requires housebuilders to move away from this familiar option. However, the Building Regulations that cover energy efficiency are still working to 2012 methodology. According to the Standard Assessment Procedure 2012, gas is a less carbon-intensive source than electricity, with gas boilers still the common way to achieve compliance with the carbon requirements of Approved Document L. But a revised version of the document will address this, introducing a lower carbon factor – that is, intensity – for electricity, and encouraging the use of electric heating applications in new-build developments.

The 2025 vision of the FHS will likely be realised by using heat pumps in place of gas boilers. This will push us further away from a reliance on gas; but will it go as far as an outright ban? And will 5 years be enough time to reprogram the construction industry to think all-electric?

The fossil fuel ban was highly ambitious in 2019. And with no update to the energy targets in the Building Regulations since, we’re more likely to see gas boiler installations continuing beyond the 2025 commitment.

“If the government wants to end the reign of gas boilers, it needs to introduce regulation that encourages or requires housebuilders to move away from this familiar option”

jonp@energist.co.uk

Related competencies include: Legal/regulatory compliance, Sustainability

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