In 2019 the UK became the first major economy to pass laws to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Alongside plans for sprawling off-shore wind farms and progressive rooftop solar financing initiatives, we have seen building efficiency become a growing presence in UK government strategies over the past two years. This month we see the latest chapter of the UK’s net zero story with the release of the ‘Heat and Buildings Strategy’ by UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industry, Kwasi Kwarteng, presenting his vision for a greener future of strong economic growth and more human-centric buildings.
"The strategy sets out the vision for a greener future, which creates hundreds of thousands of green, skilled jobs, drives the leveling up agenda, and generates opportunities for the growth of British businesses. The transition to high-efficiency low-carbon buildings can and must take account of individual, local and regional circumstances. Interventions need to be tailored to the people and markets they serve,” reads the policy proposal. “The strategy outlines a transition that focuses on reducing bills and improving comfort through energy efficiency, and building the markets required to transition to low-carbon heat and reducing costs, while testing the viability of hydrogen for heating.”
According to a 2020 Climate Change Committee (CCC) report, direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from UK buildings were 87 Mt CO2e in 2019, accounting for 17% of total emissions, and this is mainly the result of burning fossil fuels for heating. Around 74% of the UK’s heating and hot water demand in buildings is met by natural gas, and 10% by petroleum, with smaller amounts of other fuels such as coal and biomass. The new plans, therefore, have rightly made heating central to the UK’s approach to net zero buildings for climate change mitigation. The government, however, also made sure to underline the benefits of greener buildings on public health, employment, business growth, property prices, and the occupant experience.
“To meet Net Zero virtually all heat in buildings will need to be decarbonised. The benefits of more efficient, low-carbon buildings for consumers are clear: smarter, better performing buildings, reduced energy bills and healthier, more comfortable environments. Additionally, studies indicate that more energy efficient properties typically have a higher value than less efficient ones,” the proposal reads. “The 2020s will be key to delivering a step change in reducing emissions from buildings and establishing the foundations of a pathway to Net Zero. This means improving the efficiency and flexibility of our buildings, and developing the UK supply chains and technology options needed to save carbon throughout the decade and put us on a cost effective pathway to Net Zero.”
As expected, the strategy sets out a plan for more building efficiency and electrification, as well as more renewable energy generation and energy storage within a dynamic grid setup. What we might not have expected is the document’s strong emphasis on clean hydrogen as a fuel for buildings, and specifically for space heating. Hydrogen has been growing in importance as a clean energy solution for specific areas of the transport sector and certain industrial sectors, where direct electrification is expensive, technically challenging, or even impossible. It’s benefit in easily electrifiable buildings is still a subject of debate in scientific and industry circles. For power, hydrogen would need to compete with the cost of on-site/grid renewables, and heating would put hydrogen head-to-head with cost and efficiency of district heating approaches.
“Hydrogen is a valid choice for the heating of buildings. This is the main message of this study,” states the 2021 BatHyBuild study on the Use of hydrogen in buildings, a collaboration between KU Leuven, Solhyd, and Waters of Net. “Our findings show that cost differences between all-electric and hydrogen solutions will typically be small as of 2030-2040, based on the expected technology developments and future scenarios regarding infrastructure and hydrogen availability. All-electric and hydrogen solutions can co-exist in the future. Both have their specific benefits and drawbacks.”
Other research rules out the idea of using hydrogen altogether. According to ‘Hydrogen: A decarbonisation route for heat in buildings?’ a study by the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), using hydrogen to heat buildings would be almost six times more inefficient than heat pumps powered by renewable energy and require a 150% increase in primary energy generation, while also increasing heating costs and necetating costly conversions. So, the UK government’s inclusion of hydrogen for space heating as a key topic for future discussion has raised a few eyebrows, even if specific commitment to the technology will not be finalised before 2026.
The reality on the ground is that every building is different and we will need every tool in our toolbox to tackle the problem of energy efficiency across our broad building stock. The seemingly impossible goals of fully net zero societies and slowing global climate change, should only act as drivers to exploring the potential of any interesting new technology to fill the holes in our net zero ambitions. Hydrogen will find its place in buildings, alongside district heating models, electrification trends, renewable generation, and energy storage, while efficiency will be required at every stage. Our approach to net zero buildings must be hybrid and flexible enough to fit any building and suit every stakeholder.
“Across our diverse buildings landscape, we all have a role to play. The changes needed will be different depending on the type of building, building owner or occupier, and wider energy system considerations. An NHS hospital requires different solutions than a rented terraced home, and our policy package reflects this – tailoring our approach to different types of buildings and their occupants,” reads the UK government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy. “This is the common-sense approach – putting consumers at the heart of our action to transform our buildings.”