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A tradesman in red services a heat pump on the outside of a house.
There are grants of £7,500 available to help with the cost of installing heat pumps. Virrage Images/Shutterstock

Public backs move to green home heating but more government support is needed, research shows

The UK faces a significant shift in how homes are heated. To meet climate change goals, new gas boiler installations must be phased out by 2050.

New research from my colleagues and I suggests that members of the public are open to using alternative green heating, and are willing to tolerate the inconvenience of having it installed. But they are also worried about the cost, as well as finding trustworthy installers and support if things go wrong.

Approximately 80% of UK homes use natural gas boilers to provide heating and hot water. But natural gas is a fossil fuel and releases carbon dioxide when burned, which contributes to climate change.

Residential heating and hot water contribute 17% of the UK’s CO₂ emissions. So, this must be eliminated if the UK is to meet its target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

But gas boilers work well, are relatively cheap to run and benefit from established heating habits, installers and an underground gas network which has already been paid for. This has led many policymakers to view low carbon heating as a costly and disruptive process which few voters are likely to be thankful for.

So, what are some of the alternatives? Heat pumps and district heating (which uses a single heat source to serve many homes) are methods already used in other countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland. But the uptake in the UK remains low.

Hydrogen boilers work in a very similar way to gas boilers and should be far less costly to install. Unfortunately, the main way of producing hydrogen is from fossil fuels, using a process called “CO₂ capture and storage” to prevent the gas contributing to climate change when burned.

Concerns over cost and community opposition to hydrogen heating trials make it unlikely hydrogen will be used everywhere. But it could have a role in heating hard to insulate homes, or in areas where hydrogen is needed for use in heavy industry.

A new boiler typically lasts around 15 years, so to meet climate targets, people need to begin installing green alternatives soon. To fulfil that goal, the UK government has introduced a £7,500 grant towards the cost of a heat pump so that people make the change voluntarily.

But installing a heat pump can be complex, involving replacement radiators, a hot water tank and often, improved insulation suited to each individual home. While generous, the grant does not fully cover the £12,000 cost of installing a heat pump in an average UK home.

Public perception

Our study was the first to explore public perceptions of low carbon heating across a range of different technology in the UK. We conducted a series of day-long workshops with residents in Cardiff, Gloucester, Liverpool and the Scottish borders. They had been selected to identify how people in different communities and housing types may be affected by the move to low carbon heating.

Most participants saw moving to low carbon heating as a necessity and something society as a whole should be working towards. At the same time, the sheer cost of heat pumps coupled with cost of living pressures made it an unthinkable switch for many.

People wanted certainty that a heat pump would save them money in the long term. They also expected the government to pay the difference if new technology were to cost more up front than what they use now. And wary of choosing the wrong option, or falling prey to cowboy builders, many participants wanted clearer messaging from government about low carbon heating.

They also supported the idea of a national one-stop shop advice service in each community to provide independent information tailored to individual homes.

Read more: Do heat pumps work in the UK's climate? An expert answers your low-carbon heating questions

Almost all our participants were highly sceptical of using hydrogen as a heating source. Overall, they saw it as a “sticking plaster” which would lay the foundation for the next energy price spike. The need to convert entire sections of the gas grid all in one go meant that for many, a move to hydrogen seemed like something that would more likely be forced upon them by infrastructure suppliers, rather than something they may choose for themselves.

District heating was also, at times, seen as imposing a single, potentially unreliable system on households. Others saw some benefit in spreading the cost of low carbon heating over a larger population. And, in Liverpool, strong local identity and a feeling of solidarity led most participants to prefer a locally-owned system to private provision.

An evening view of colourful, waterside houses in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen in Denmark has the world’s largest district heating network. trabantos/Shutterstock

People living in rented accommodation were the most sceptical about the low carbon technology on offer. Imbalances in power with landlords led to extreme worry that whatever solution was chosen for them, tenants would end up paying through rent rises or even evictions.

Considering moving to low carbon heating can be stressful for people. It involves uncertain bills and costs, disruptive changes to the home and unfamiliar technology. Beyond the provision of individual grants, there is not enough support for households that are largely being left alone to navigate this complex and stressful process.

Despite the urgency of climate action, the strains of everyday life, bills and home maintenance often feel more pressing than the switch to low carbon heating. The UK needs a more joined up approach to advice, grants and infrastructure that will support citizens and communities through the process. The public is widely in favour of moving away from fossil fuel heating, but needs support to get there.

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