With the government looking to ban gas boilers in new builds from 2025, we look at the alternatives to gas central heating and the challenges and opportunities facing housebuilders.
Gas central heating has long been seen as a cheap, effective solution to heating Britain’s homes, but not for much longer. In his Spring Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a new Future Homes Standard that will include a gas boiler ban in new build properties from 2025.
Why does the government want to ban gas?
To meet the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets, we need to eliminate almost all greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings. Energy use in homes currently accounts for around 14 per cent of total emissions.
A key part of meeting these targets is transitioning the 85 per cent of homes heated by fossil-fuel based natural gas to low carbon heat sources. As new build properties typically have better insulation and building standards than older homes, they’re better suited to eco-friendly heating systems.
Reducing emissions from homes is also good news for homeowners, as eco-friendly homes cost less to heat in winter and are often more comfortable than older, draughtier properties.
What are the alternatives to gas boilers?
While gas typically works out cheaper than alternative heating systems for the “average” UK house, new build homes are much better insulated than the older properties that make up most of the housing stock. Even in winter, the demand for heating can be low, making the cost of installing and maintaining a gas heating system comparatively more expensive.
For developers or homeowners looking to the future, here are some alternatives to gas:
1) Heat pumps
Heat pumps are classed as renewable energy technology. Electricity is needed to power the pump, but they’re much more efficient than standard electric heating. For example, a heat pump with a Coefficient Performance of 3 would produce 3 units of heat for every 1 unit of electricity.
Most heat pumps in the UK draw heat from the air or ground. Air source heat pumps are cheaper for small individual properties, whereas ground-source heat pumps may work out more cost-effective for large properties, or apartment blocks on a good-sized plot of land. Both types of heat pump are currently eligible for funding under the government’s RHI scheme.
Heat pumps work best in highly insulated properties, which is why they’re a good choice for new builds.
2) Electric heating
Electric heaters have improved considerably from the expensive, unpopular storage heaters of the past. Modern high-efficiency electric heaters are easy to install and can be a cheap way of heating small, well-insulated properties.
3) Heat networks
District heat networks have been around for decades, but they’re less popular in the UK than other European countries. Heat networks use a central energy centre to distribute heating via hot water pipes to individual properties.
Many new heat networks are fuelled by gas CHP boilers, with a long-term strategy of transitioning to more green fuel sources, such as energy from waste treatment plants. One network in Islington, London, even recycles excess heat from the London Underground system!
Heat networks are most efficient and cost-effective for large developments, apartment blocks and hotels.
4) Biomass, biogas and hydrogen
Biomass boilers (which are eligible for RHI funding) are used as a heat source for a small number of properties. Looking to the future, we may see more innovative systems involving biogas or hydrogen boilers.
The HyDeploy project is already trialling a blend of hydrogen and natural gas which can be delivered through the existing gas network without customers having to upgrade appliances. As well as reducing emissions from existing homes, hydrogen could also be used as supplementary heating during periods of extremely cold weather, when air source heat pumps struggle.
How could the gas boiler ban affect new build design?
New build homes already have to meet certain insulation requirements as part of building regulations. If heat pumps begin to replace gas boilers as the heating system of choice for new builds, further improving these standards by closing the energy performance gap will become even more important.
As heat pumps work best with low-temperature heating systems, there may also be a transition from radiator-based heating systems to underfloor heating.
Challenges and opportunities facing the industry
If you’re building a new home today, installing a heat pump or high-efficiency electric heating system may be more expensive than a basic gas central heating system. However, the cost of heat pumps and alternative technologies is likely to decrease in the coming years, particularly with policy changes designed to phase out gas boilers.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for developers and landlords will be consumer awareness. People are naturally resistant to change, and we’ve become used to being able to have heating on demand.
Heating systems powered by heat pumps and other low carbon technologies work in a different way and trying to operate them as you would a gas heating system can lead to frustration and high costs. Educating new homeowners on how their heating system should be used will be an important aspect for developers to consider.
Even with these challenges, there are benefits to constructing eco-friendly properties. Building properties which exceed current energy standards will help future-proof against technological change and make them more attractive to buyers. Energy efficient homes can demand a premium as homeowners can expect to pay lower energy bills, and in the rental market, eco-friendly properties can often generate higher rents, with lower operating costs and voids.
More details about the Future Homes Standard will emerge once proposals are issued for consultation in 2019.