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Cutting energy costs and helping the planet at the same time

From Cllr Emma Crane, Rugby Borough Council Climate Change Champion

Tackling climate change can feel like an insurmountable challenge and with so many other pressing concerns to deal with, like energy price and cost of living crises, many people feel there’s little they can do on a personal level.

But taking steps to reduce emissions in our homes can also bring benefits such as lower energy bills.  Heating is responsible for around 14% of the UK’s total carbon emissions.  To decarbonise home heating, we’ll need to:

  • First make our homes more energy efficient, which will also reduce demand for energy; and
  • Heat our homes with renewable energy (electricity) rather than with fossil fuels (gas, oil or coal).

Switching away from gas heating means we’ll be a lot less exposed to the volatility of the global gas markets (which is what sets the high gas prices, regardless of whether we extract more of our “own” gas from the North Sea).  It will also help us to move away from reliance on fossil fuels from countries such as Russia.

The main way to achieve this will be through removing our gas boilers and installing a heat pump.  This can be done immediately or when our existing gas boilers come to the end of their lives.

The Government has set a target of installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028 and has recently launched its Boiler Upgrade Scheme which provides up to £6,000 grant funding for heat pump installations. For those in rented accommodation ask your landlord what plans they have to reduce emissions and to increase the energy efficiency of your property.  The Council is developing a retrofit strategy for council homes and has started installing heat pumps in some of its properties.

The thought of installing a heat pump can be daunting, not just in terms of the cost.  But it’s important to remember that whilst it’s a different technology to the gas boilers we’re used to, it’s a well-established and popular technology widely used in many other countries.  The UK lags behind most European countries in installations (France installed over 8.6 million heat pumps in 2020) and came joint last for heat pump sales out of 21 nations.  Now is the time for the UK to catch up!

Heat pumps work a bit like a fridge in reverse - see this useful summary which explains more about how they work.  Headline points to note are that around 50% of UK homes are suitable for heat pumps with no or minimal upgrades to insulation and, according to a recent study, once installed a heat pump will be £260 cheaper to run per year than a gas boiler.

Another concern can be that there are not enough trained heat pump engineers, however, this is fast changing.  Octopus Energy has committed to train 1,000 green heat engineers per year and the Heat Pump Association has confirmed that they can train over 7,000 heat pump installers per year across 22 centres in the UK.

At the same time as moving away from heating our homes with gas and other fossil fuels, we also need to reduce our energy use.  The International Energy Agency has provided a guide with simple steps we can take, such as turning down the thermostat by a few degrees.  Sky has also provided a handy guide of steps you can take to save £400 a year at the same time as cutting our carbon emissions. 

As summer approaches, I’ve already turned my heating off, but I’m also going to turn off my tumble drier, use the eco setting on my dishwasher and check out the Government’s new Boiler Upgrade Scheme.  Every little helps in the fight for our planet.

A footnote on hydrogen….It’s also worth saying a word about “hydrogen ready boilers” (through converting existing gas boilers) which many people may have heard of and may think is a viable alternative to installing a heat pump.  It’s important to remember that heating our homes purely by hydrogen is unlikely to be an option which will be rolled out for the majority of homes in the UK and instead is likely to be something which may be best suited for neighbourhoods which are located close to existing gas power stations.  It’s also worth knowing that most hydrogen is made using electricity from gas, is very energy intensive and creates large amounts of carbon dioxide as a by-product.   The market for capturing this CO2 is still developing and the technology is as yet unproven for mass roll out.   This is in contrast to heat pumps which are a proven technology across many countries.  Find out more here.