Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Home heating and the green shoots of innumeracy


AS HAS been widely reported, particularly by independent publications such as The Conservative Woman, throughout the pandemic the government have demonstrated a remarkable ability to focus on the wrong numbers to justify their increasingly bizarre actions, and mainstream media have shamefully broadcast these numbers without challenge or interpretation.

Last week brought us confirmation that innumeracy lies at the heart of government with the announcement that 650,000 houses per year are to be converted from gas heating to heat pumps and all houses are to be insulated to EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) level C, which is the third-highest efficiency level of seven. Presumably this has been timed to enable the Prime Minister to look green and to pander to the woke. There has been remarkably little discussion of the vital questions of why, how, and what it will cost.

There is a beguiling attraction to heat pumps as through complicated thermodynamic brilliance they can deliver about three times as much heat as the energy they consume. Given that domestic heating uses some 310 terawatt hours (TWh) of natural gas – equivalent to the output of ten Sizewell C power stations – reducing that to 100 TWh or so saves the cost and construction of six nuclear power stations or their equivalent (in 2019 all the wind power in the UK delivered the equivalent of two Sizewell C). Converting from gas to heat pumps reduces emissions only if clean energy is available to do it. Notwithstanding the government’s eagerness to increase zero emission generation capacity, it is far from clear that there will be enough electricity.

The how is the tricky bit. While it makes no sense for a new house not to have heat pumps, retro-fitting older housing is complicated.  The same thermodynamic genius that delivers the extra energy also dictates that the heating is delivered at around 40oC rather than the 75oC or so of a central heating system. This means that all the radiators need modification or (more likely) replacement. In some cases the pipework will need replacing too. Alternatively, the house will need fitting with underfloor heating. None of this is quick and none of this is cheap.

There is also the significant question of who will do the work. Few houses are the same, so all will require design work, plus a significant amount of onsite labour, plus plasterers and decorators to make good. We’re already short of building tradespeople. And the current capacity of the UK heat pump industry is some 30,000 installations a year. Rapidly expanding an industry by 20 times is unprecedented and will surely lead to quality and regulation challenges – some cowboys will make a killing.

Finally, who’s going to pay for this? An (unsurprisingly) unnamed government spokesman says that it will cost £18,000 for the ‘average’ house.  I wonder what he means by ‘average’ – 90 per cent of UK housing is more than 50 years old and for more than 50 per cent of it central heating was a retro-fit. At the government’s rate the bill is £11billion per year. Perhaps Rishi has taken a cutting from his magic money tree and is growing another.

It’s worth remembering that the commitment to net zero was made by the thoroughly mediocre Mrs May, by statutory instrument (so without debate or vote) in 2019. No one checked if it was possible. No one calculated the cost. No one considered what might happen if the UK went green alone.

The current, innumerate Prime Minister is widening the target (by including air transport), accelerating the timings, thus rendering emerging technologies impotent, and seems heedless of cost, practicalities or engineering. I fear that he is about to learn (at our expense) that his espoused maxim of ‘Have cake, eat cake’ is scientifically impossible.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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