A one-size-fits-all approach is not the right strategy for net zero targets, argues Jenny Curtis, Managing Director of Vattenfall Heat UK.

Vattenfall is rolling out district heating systems in several UK cities
Vattenfall is rolling out district heating systems in several UK cities - Vattenfall

The reaction to the government’s decision to roll back some of its key net-zero pledges this week has fallen into the same trap as the debate about the merits of those pledges in the first place.

While discussion about the policies around heat could mostly be summed up as ‘heat pumps vs gas boilers’, the response from most commentators has been either ‘bad for the environment’ or ‘saves money for hard-pressed households.’

The problem with this debate is that it is all based on the assumption that there is only one answer to the problem.

We must hit net zero by 2050, but when selecting the milestones along the way, government needs to have a plan for how to reach them in addition to just setting a deadline. A plan that makes clear how much it will cost and how it will be paid for. Simply expecting households to figure it out (and pay for it) themselves is not going to work.

In the case of phasing out gas and oil boilers, the lack of a proper plan undermined the main driver helping to create a market for low-carbon heating technologies: namely, the 2035 deadline.

To tackle climate change, governments, businesses and others need to take a more pragmatic approach and keep in mind the overarching objective: reducing carbon emissions.

Technology does the job it was designed to do in the environment it was designed to do it in.

Heat pumps are very effective if they’re in well insulated homes with underfloor heating or large radiators, and space for the additional hot water cylinders and other kit required for them to work properly. Even with ongoing innovation, they aren’t going to be as effective in Victorian terraces.

So to reduce the conversation about decarbonising heating to a head-to-head fight between heat pumps and gas boilers misses the point entirely. And now, the delay in phasing out gas boilers reduces the momentum for building owners – whether commercial or residential – to move away from fossil fuels. That makes it harder for businesses to justify their investments in the UK.

We have to move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all-by-the-same-deadline’ approach and accept that a range of technologies, appropriate for where they will be deployed, are going to be needed to reduce our climate emissions.

In the case of heating, a more effective way to target money and technology would be to identify which types of property are suitable for which sources of low-carbon heating.

District heating, for example, captures waste heat from sources such as data centres, factories and energy-from-waste plants and transports it via a network of pipes to residential and commercial properties. It works best in densely populated urban areas where there is a plentiful supply of heat sources and consumers. Rural areas have less of both.

Thanks to measures implemented by the Scottish government, local authorities in Scotland have been asked to implement a zoned approach for heat networks. The Westminster government should hopefully be following suit, via the Energy Bill currently making its way through Parliament.

The aim of zoning is to accelerate the roll-out of heat networks, through the collaboration of central and local government, industry and local stakeholders to identify and designate areas as heat network zones, where they are the best solution to offer low carbon heat at the fairest cost to the consumer.

Homes which have more space around them (most likely in more suburban and rural areas) will be more suitable for heat pumps. And all properties will benefit from better insulation, which will keep their occupants warmer while reducing their energy use. It saves money on bills while lowering their emissions, whichever technology they use for heating – which is the ultimate objective after all.

The government would be better advised to keep that ultimate objective of carbon emissions reduction in mind while working with businesses to target the right technology in the right areas at the right price.

Jenny Curtis is Managing Director of Vattenfall Heat UK