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Is off-grid ready for net zero?

A satalite view of an off grid town in the UK with green fields to the left and blue sky with no clouds
Nearly a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating buildings. The UK government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy, published last Autumn, outlined proposals to phase out fossil fuel gas and oil boiler installations, and instead to focus on heat pumps and alternative, sustainable heating solutions.

The government’s current ambition is to phase out the installation of new natural gas boilers in on-gas areas from 2035. However, for those off the main gas grid, an earlier phase out date of 2026 in domestic and small and medium non domestic buildings has been proposed; with a target of 2024 in large non-domestic properties.

In England, there are currently 1.1 million homes off the gas grid with fossil-fuel heating systems. Those that use oil as their main source of full accounts for 78% of these properties.

One of the reasons for the government’s ‘rural first’ approach, which will see the fossil fuel phase out date come almost 10 years earlier for off-grid than on-grid, is that hydrogen isn’t a possibility for off-grid communities. Hydrogen trials are very much focused on blending this future fuel into the existing gas grid and therefore decarbonising off-grid heating with existing technologies has been identified as ‘low hanging fruit’ for government policy-makers.

But what does this mean for off-gas-grid homes and businesses?

The UK government has proposed a ‘heat pump first’ approach to replacing heating systems in off-grid properties.

While heat pumps are undoubtedly a key technology for decarbonising heating, they cost more to install than a gas boiler. Heat pumps are potentially much more costly when installed in a typical off-gas-grid home, and installation can also take longer and be more disruptive to households than those on the grid.

The cost to install a heat pump can vary hugely depending on the complexity of the job and whether the property will need additional energy efficiency upgrades to ensure the heat pump performs at its best - such as wall insulation and resized radiators. In fact, estimates for retrofitting heat pumps on many existing rural homes is more than £30,000, when accounting for the additional energy efficiency measures that need to be made to ensure the pump works effectively.

There are other complications that could hamper the shift to heat pumps too. For one thing, there simply aren’t enough heating engineers with heat pump expertise to install them, so more will need to be trained. In addition, with many people now having combi-boilers in their homes there is limited space to fit a hot water cylinder, required when fitting a heat pump. Ground-source heat pumps also require considerable outdoor space for a deep hole or long trench, making them unsuitable for certain types of building.

Rural insulation challenge

To decarbonise the UK’s diverse housing stock, the government has set an ambition for all rural homes to get up to an EPC band of C or above by 2035. With around 88% of these homes below EPC band C currently, many will need extensive improvements to their insulation and heating system – including replacement or additional radiators, hot water tanks, upgraded windows and doors – for a heat pump to work effectively.

Calor is therefore asking the government to adopt a ‘heat pump ready’ approach as opposed to ‘heat pump first’. This would target the most suitable homes for deployment of heat pumps first, rather than rural homes and businesses where there are more potential barriers to a successful installation.

The government’s heat pump first proposal also appears to have come at the expense of support for other available sustainable solutions that could help to ease the cost for rural homes to transition from fossil fuel heating systems (such as oil) to more sustainable solutions. In less than four years, many off-grid homeowners could face an unexpectedly large bill for installing a heat pump. Grants are available to help some households, however they will only cover a percentage of the estimated overall cost.

Alternatives to heat pumps

Our consumer research confirms that off-gas-grid households want to choose from a range of low-carbon heating options. They also don’t expect to pay more for their central heating system than the cost and installation of a conventional boiler.

For those currently using an LPG boiler, Calor’s Futuria Liquid Gas, previously known as BioLPG, can be dropped into existing LPG systems. Futuria Liquid Gas is chemically identical to conventional LPG, so it’s compatible with existing LPG boilers, without modification. This also avoids the cost and disturbance associated with installing an alternative appliance such as a heat pump, by providing the high temperature heating necessary for many poorly insulated rural homes and businesses.

Futuria Liquid Gas is produced from a range of sustainably sourced feedstock including plant and vegetable waste material and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 86%. This could be of particular interest to the 69% of off-grid homeowners who indicated it was very important that their future fuel supplies come from renewable sources, according to our own research.

Commercial buildings

When it comes to older commercial buildings such as hotels, pubs or care homes; many are even harder to heat than some rural off-grid homes. As a result, they are running on either LPG or oil boilers.

Additional fabric upgrades are often required with the installation of heat pumps because they distribute heat in a different way to boilers. In many cases the property will require new radiators to ensure a heat pump is working to its maximum efficiency. This can make the installation of a heat pump disruptive and time-consuming in comparison – meaning significant downtime – and money lost – for commercial premises.

Switching from LPG to Futuria Liquid Gas on the other hand is seamless, and from oil it just requires a new boiler and storage tank, with lno internal refurb work.

On our grid

There’s no silver bullet for decarbonising heat for homes and businesses. Indeed, a range of solutions are needed to decarbonise heat across the UK’s 30 million buildings. However, the government’s current ‘heat pump first’ strategy means there isn’t enough focus on other options – particularly for those living off the mains gas grid.

We’re working to ensure that the views of the off-grid community are heard by policymakers when it comes to decarbonising heat. We recently discussed the topic with The Times, as part of their Future of Energy supplement. Available to download here: 

Phasing out the installation of fossil fuel heating in homes off the gas grid, UK Government, October 2021 – page 7 & 8 (LINK)