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World’s progress at making heating renewable is pitiful – here’s why

Warm and cosy and screwing up the atmosphere. Elena Eliseeva

The Marrakech Climate Conference in Morocco, which opened on November 7, marks a new beginning in the global battle against climate change. The 100 countries fully signed up to the Paris Agreement to tackle carbon emissions, which is newly in force, are committed to fighting climate change beyond anything we have seen to date.

The agreement is focused on keeping the rise in world temperatures to 2°C and trying to limit it to 1.5°C. This is partly about taking the carbon out of energy production, which is well underway through the likes of wind and solar power. Last year, most new electricity generation under construction across the world was renewable for the first time, and it was the leading source of power in the EU.

Yet at the same time, almost nothing has been done about making heating renewable. This is a huge oversight: heating amounts to a third of carbon emissions worldwide. In the UK, for example, only 6% of heating is renewable, mostly thanks to burning wood in homes and industrial biomass boilers. Clearly we can’t decarbonise without addressing this problem. So what’s stopping us?

The political will has undoubtedly been lacking around the world as oil and gas have been cheaper for the last couple of years. But at the same time, heat is trickier to deal with than electricity. Heat is produced by millions of separate installations from different fuels and at different temperatures. The result is that heat metering is uncommon, which makes it harder to develop renewable heating policies or measure their effectiveness.

The UK’s experience

The UK has arguably been leading the way through a subsidy system known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Launched in 2011 for businesses and then 2014 for homes, the system encourages participants to install things like solar water heaters, heat pumps, and wood-fuelled boilers. Rather than giving people or businesses a one-off grant, it works by paying them for the heat they produce.

Bio-burning. tchara

For households and small businesses, this is similar to the feed-in tariffs system that has successfully encouraged UK homes to install solar panels and other renewable power sources. But while feed-in tariffs exist in over a hundred countries, including Australia and South Africa, the RHI remains the only one of its kind.

To date it has not been as successful. By March 2012, two years after feed-in tariffs launched in the UK, there were 314,843 installations of small renewable power, mostly of solar photovoltaic panels. By the end of March 2016, the equivalent month for the domestic RHI, the number of installations of household renewable boilers, heat pumps and solar hot water panels was only 47,743. (The most recent figures for the two schemes, from September, are 868,098 and 54,849 respectively.)

Businesses are a different comparison because the subsidy system for renewable electricity changes for larger quantities. Suffice to say they are not on target either: they comprise nearly 90% of all renewable heat installed to date, since the installations tend to be much bigger. But the latest UK government information makes clear that no one expects the 2020 target for 12% renewable heat to be met.

Whys and wherefores

When it comes to smaller installations, this is not a cost issue per se. The levels of investment required for renewable power and heat are similar, with solar panels and biomass boilers and heat pumps broadly costing in the £10,000 to £20,000 range and giving a circa 12% return on investment. Surveys meanwhile suggest that householders are primarily satisfied with the application process for the RHI, while the risk of cowboy installers has been reduced through a government certification scheme.

What is an issue is insulation. Buildings can only be eligible for the RHI if they meet a certain standard of energy performance by being properly insulated first. This is because the right insulation allows buildings to be heated by smaller-scale, lower-temperature heat installations of the kind that make renewables more viable.

The government has been preparing the ground with increasingly strict rules about insulation standards for new builds and by offering grants to other householders to improve their insulation. The UK is moving in the right direction, with roughly 173,000 homes improved since May 2015 and a target for one million within five years. While the country makes this shift to high-quality insulation, it makes sense that demand for renewable heat technologies is weaker.

Insulation nation. bogdanhoda

For households at least, a second restricting factor is likely to be that making changes to heating is much more personal than putting panels on your roof. It affects the aesthetics and cosiness of your home, as well as sometimes involving changes to behaviour such as buying and storing bags of pellets to burn in the boiler. Partly for these reasons, people often invest in renewable heat at the same time as other home improvements – meaning it tends to be part of a bigger outlay.

In short, we shouldn’t be surprised that renewable heat subsidies haven’t been as quickly effective as those for renewable electricity. Both technologies are aiming for 750,000 installations by 2020. That looks a big stretch for the RHI, but this certainly doesn’t mean the system won’t work in time.

The UK’s installation figures are a reminder about the extra challenges around decarbonising heat. As the other countries that have committed to the Paris Agreement decide how best to reduce carbon emissions from heating, the UK’s experience can at least provide indications of what lies ahead. The past year has been a remarkable one for climate change legislation. The world’s leading nations now need to use the momentum to make renewable heat a reality.

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