Phasing out fossil fuel heating from 2026 – is the countryside ready?

For the UK to reach net zero by 2050, emissions from heating will need to drastically reduce. Off-gas-grid homes and businesses are starting almost 10 years before on-gas-grid homes, but do they have the support they need?

Nearly a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating buildings. If this heat isn’t significantly decarbonised it will be impossible for the country to reach net zero by 2050. The government’s heat and buildings strategy, published in October last year, provides proposals to achieve this by phasing out installations of replacement fossil fuel gas and oil boilers. This will begin in 2026 for off-gas-grid homes, and 2024 for larger off-gas-grid business. This ‘rural first’ approach is almost 10 years earlier than the mooted 2035 phase out start date for gas boilers for homes on the gas grid.

But what does this mean for off-gas-grid homes and businesses? While accepting not all homes are suitable for heat pumps, they are the government’s favoured low-carbon heating solution. But while heat pumps are undoubtedly a key technology for decarbonising heating, they cost considerably more to install than a gas boiler and much more in a typical off-gas-grid home, and the installation takes much longer and is more disruptive to households.

To bring down prices and increase innovation, the government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme is providing homeowners with up to £6,000 off the cost of low carbon heating systems up to 2025. But even with this financial help, typicial heat pumps are still likely to work out more expensive than a conventional gas boiler. In fact, estimates for retrofitting them on many existing rural homes can cost more than £30,000, when considering energy efficiency upgrades too, depending on the com­plexity of the job.

Other complications could also hamper the shift to heat pumps. For one thing, there simply aren’t enough heating engineers with the expertise to install them today, so more will need to be trained. 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

Currently, 88% of homes are below EPC band C, and the government target is for all homes to have an EPC rating of C by 2035. Many will therefore 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. They also vary considerably in design compared to suburban homes, which makes installations more complicated. In short, off-gas-grid properties could be the guinea pigs for the UK’s heating transition.

“Domestic off-gas-grid homeowners are going to be tasked with moving from a well-established heating system with a boiler and a set of radiators, in a property that is built to accommodate that level of heating, to one that is very different,” says Andy Parker, head of strategy and corporate affairs at Calor.

The government should adopt a ‘heat pump ready’ approach, targeting the most suitable homes for deployment first

The cost of properly insulating a four or five bedroom off-grid rural property could run to over £30,000 in some cases, according to independent analysts Gemserv – and that’s on top of the cost of the heat pump itself. “The housing stock in the off-grid market is harder to treat with insulation and other heat saving measures,” says Andy Parker, head of strategy and corporate affairs at Calor “…[and that’s] before you even get to finding an installer.”

Worryingly, Parker says there is a complete lack of awareness about the proposals in the consultation document. “We’ve done research with off-grid communities – not just our customers, but those running on a variety of other heating systems – and very few people know about the 2026 date. We strongly advocate that the government should adopt a ‘heat pump ready’ approach, targeting the most suitable homes for deployment first both on- and off-gas-grid.” This will allow installers and the supply chain to increase their experience and capacity by focusing on more straightforward installs.

Alternatives to heat pumps

In under four years, many off-grid homeowners could face an unexpectedly large bill if their heating system breaks down. The government’s rural first proposal also appears to have come at the expense of support for other available sustainable solutions that could help to ease the transition from fossil fuel heating systems.

Some of these alternative solutions are more practical than others. Biomass boilers, for example, can negatively impact air quality. Calor’s consumer research confirms that off-gas-grid households want to choose from a range of low-carbon heating choices, but they do not expect to pay more for their central heating system than the cost and installation of a conventional boiler.

Calor’s Futuria Liquid Gas, also known as BioLPG, can be dropped into existing LPG heating systems today. 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 Calor’s own research.

Futuria Liquid Gas is chemically identical to conventional LPG, so it is compatible with existing LPG supply networks and boilers, without modification. This also avoids the cost and disturbance associated with installing a heat pump, by providing the high temperature heating necessary for many poorly insulated rural homes and businesses.

“If you think about the old building stock in the commercial arena, whether that’s hotels, pubs or care homes, a lot of these are even harder to heat than some [rural off-grid] homes,” says Parker. “The majority of them are running on either LPG or oil boilers. A commercial heat pump install could take several days, so the benefit from reduced disruption for a business is quite significant. A switch to Futuria Liquid Gas from LPG is seamless, and from oil it just requires a new boiler and storage tank, with no internal refurb work.”

Calor Futuria Liquid Gas can also form part of a hybrid heating solution by combining with a heat pump. For example, during relatively mild weather a heat pump may be capable of providing all the heating needed. “But when the weather is at its coldest, or during moments of higher demand, a boiler could be used to supply both the heating and the hot water,” says Parker.

There’s no silver bullet for decarbonising heat for homes and businesses. Indeed, a range of solutions will be needed to decarbonise heat across the UK’s 30m buildings. But the government’s current ‘heat pump first’ strategy means there is not enough focus on other options. And as Parker says, while “heat pumps are going to be a really significant factor in the transition, they’re not suitable for every property that’s out there.”

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