This year has seen energy prices rise to unprecedented levels, partly because of the UK’s over-reliance on foreign gas supplies. We know that burning fossil fuels is contributing significantly to the country’s carbon emissions – could finding an alternative to gas be the answer to both of these problems?
In this article, we look at what to expect from the future of home heating and what you can do to prepare now.
The link between gas boilers and carbon emissions
You might expect that heavy industry is to blame for the majority of the carbon emissions in this country, but in fact, it’s domestic energy use that contributes the most.
Our homes produce a hefty amount of greenhouse gasses, and experts predict that most of this comes from our gas boilers.
Residential heating and hot water accounted for 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions in 20191.
To meet the government’s ‘net zero’ target by 2050, leading experts in climate change are clear that the country’s gas boilers must be replaced with low-carbon heating alternatives.
What does ‘net zero’ mean?
Net zero is a state in which things that emit carbon emissions are offset by those which eliminate it, and as such, no new emissions are added to the environment.
To make this a reality, more than 29 million homes will need to be retrofitted with alternative heat sources. To put that into perspective, that’s 20,000 homes a week between 2025 and 20502.
What does the future of home heating look like?
The UK’s homes and the people living in them are diverse, and each one will require a different approach to decarbonisation. What works for a mid-century terraced house is unlikely to work for a modern detached house.
In the coming years, we’ll start to see a move away from gas towards alternative heating systems powered by electric, hydrogen, and biofuels.
The challenge for the heating industry will be to find solutions that are suitable for different types of houses – and there is a lot to take into consideration:
- Wall type
- Available space inside and out
- Water tanks
- Size of the radiators
All of these factors play a part in choosing the right type of home heating system.
In reality, we’ll need a mix of different technologies, but the two frontrunners are heat pumps and hydrogen boilers.
Heat pumps – what are they and how do they work?
A heat pump works by extracting thermal energy from the ground and the air outside. It uses this energy to heat the water that feeds directly into your radiators, taps, and shower.
Heat pumps are already being used in homes across the country, which puts them head and shoulders above some of the other low-carbon options that are still being tested and developed.
In fact, they’re widely installed across Nordic countries and are still effective in temperatures as low as -20°C.
Although they use some electricity, heat pumps are still considered cleaner because they don’t rely on burning fossil fuels.
Every unit of electricity that is put into a heat pump has the potential to produce three to four units of heat, making this technology more than 100% efficient3.
In well-insulated buildings, a heat pump can reduce energy consumption by up to 72%, but if the heat it provides is lost through poor insulation, then it will cost more to run4. That’s why for now, heat pumps are better suited to new builds where the insulation meets high standards.
Heat pumps also have a number of large components that require a lot of space. A water tank needs to be housed inside, and outside there needs to be enough room for the pump.
Hydrogen boilers as an alternative heating system
The feasibility of installing hydrogen boilers in residential properties is still under review, but if it’s approved for use then it looks likely that hydrogen could replace gas.
Hydrogen-ready boilers are being developed by some of the UK’s biggest manufacturers, so when you buy a new boiler in the future it will already have the potential to take hydrogen with some minor tweaks.
British Gas has given its customers this information on the plan for the hydrogen roll-out:
Stage 1: all new gas boilers will be able to take hydrogen with a few modifications (this could be as early as 2023-25)
Stage 2: a mix of hydrogen (20%) and gas (80%) will be introduced into the network – the earliest this will happen is 2028.
Stage 3: the UK will switch to 100% hydrogen, but this is unlikely to happen until the mid-2040s.
Water vapour is the only by-product of hydrogen making it much cleaner than conventional gas. Boilers that use hydrogen don’t produce any carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.
It’s also easier to install than some other heating systems because it’s compatible with the current network of gas pipes and it only takes up the same space as your current boiler.
Biomethane is another green gas that could provide an alternative to burning fossil fuels. Like hydrogen, biomethane doesn’t produce carbon emissions, and it can be used with existing heating systems.
Can low-carbon alternatives save you money?
Climate change isn’t the only driving force behind the move to low-carbon alternatives. Our over-reliance on natural gas has left the UK at the mercy of a volatile market and we’re all paying more to heat our homes.
Introducing other energy sources could make heating our homes more affordable, which will have a wider impact on the health of millions of people in winter.
You can also save money on your fuel bill and minimise your carbon footprint by switching to a new and more energy-efficient boiler.
The Energy Saving Trust estimates that when you switch from a G-rated to an A-rated boiler you will burn a third less fuel. If you live in a detached house this could save you up to £580, based on calculations made in April 20225.
Improving your home’s thermal performance i.e. how much heat it retains, is another way of saving money on your fuel bills. Insulation is key to preventing heat loss through your roof, floor, and walls.
By properly insulating your home you will use less energy and pay less to heat your home.
Could gas boilers be banned in the future?
You may have heard that gas boilers are going to be banned, and you’re probably wondering what this means for your home heating system.
The ‘ban’ refers to the requirement for new homes to produce 75-80% fewer carbon emissions than the current standard, which would be difficult to achieve with a gas boiler.
From 2025 the emphasis will be on making sure that new builds are ‘zero carbon ready’.
This is part of the Future Buildings Standard, which brings together the results of a consultation with the building industry on energy and ventilation in new properties.
A complete ban on gas boilers in the short term is unlikely (after all, millions of us still use gas to power our central heating system) but there is every chance that it could happen in the next 30 years.
The best way to prepare for this is to future-proof your heating system by upgrading your old gas boiler. Modern boilers can be tweaked to take an 80:20 blend of gas and hydrogen, which puts you in a good position to take advantage of the roll-out when the time comes.
Should you still invest in a new gas boiler?
While low-carbon alternatives are being developed, replacing your old gas boiler with a new one is still the most cost-effective way of cutting your carbon emission and your fuel bill.
Modern boilers are fitted with condensing technology that re-uses the heat they produce, making them more efficient than old conventional boilers.
According to one of the UK’s leading boiler manufacturers, 90p in every £1 that you spend on running a condesing boiler goes towards heating your home6.
Boilers – like lots of other household appliances – are given an energy efficiency rating at the point they’re manufactured. This shows you what percentage of the boiler’s energy consumption is used to provide heating i.e. what isn’t lost or used to run the system.
Energy efficiency rating
- A – 90% and above
- B – 86 – 90%
- C – 82 – 86%
- D – 78 – 82%
- E – 74 – 78%
- F – 70 – 74%
- G – below 70%
Most modern boilers are over 90% energy efficient when they’re set-up correctly. Combined with smart heating controls and better insulation, switching from an old boiler to a new one could save you hundreds of pounds.
Financial incentives to replace your old boiler
If you’re thinking about switching to a low-carbon heating system then you may be eligible for financial support.
The Boiler Upgrade Scheme is a government grant for property owners that want to upgrade their heating system to a low-carbon alternative. It covers domestic and small non-domestic properties.
The scheme is open to applications between 2022 and 2025. You could get:
- £5,000 off the cost and installation of an air source heat pump
- £5,000 off the cost and installation of a biomass boiler
- £6,000 off the cost and installation of a ground source heat pump
You can find out if you’re eligible and how to apply on the government website.
For low-income and vulnerable households, there is also help to improve your home’s energy efficiency. Rather than a government grant, this is an obligation on the energy companies to help their customers.
The Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme is largely focused on loft and cavity wall insulation, but it’s also possible to get help with replacing an old boiler or heating system.
There is information about the ECO scheme on the Simple Energy Advice website, where there is also a tool to help you find local home energy grants.
Final thoughts on the future of home heating
Burning fossil fuels to heat our homes is significantly contributing to the UK’s total carbon emissions. To meet the net-zero target by 2050 the focus needs to be on replacing old gas boilers with low-carbon alternatives.
Heat pumps and hydrogen gas are the two frontrunners, but with the former requiring a lot of space and the latter still in development, there is some way to go before they can replace gas boilers completely.
While these systems are still being developed, upgrading to an A-rated energy-efficient gas boiler is still the best way to cut your carbon emissions and your fuel bill.
3 The Sustainable Homes and Buildings Coalition (15.10.22)
4 The Renewable Energy Hub UK (2022)
5 Energy Saving Trust (8/09/22)