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Domestic heat biggest barrier to eliminating carbon emissions

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Decarbonising the UK’s domestic heating will prove the biggest challenge in eliminating carbon emmissions, the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said.  

Speaking at the Aurora Summer Renewable Energy Summit, CCC chief executive Chris Stark said that decarbonising heating systems would prove the great challenge in meeting the goals of its Net Zero report.  

“The most difficult thing [in implementing net zero] is the question of decarbonised heat,” Stark said. 

“The overall cost of net zero we assess is about one to two percent of GDP, as an annual cost from now until 2050. That is not an insignificant amount, and more than half of that cost is heating buildings. That is a big, big challenge, never mind the cost - this is the challenge of intervention in the home.  

Stark added that unless plans are put in place to find a way to decarbonise domestic heat, net zero could be beyond our reach. “Putting in place a proper policy to do this over 30 years is the single biggest policy challenge facing the government and industry right now,” Stark added. “Unless there is a plan to deal with decarbonising heat alongside other plans for the power sector, it will extraordinarily difficult to reach net zero.”  

Aurora director of research Richard Howard told New Civil Engineer there were two main options for taking carbon out of our heating sytems. “The options for getting close to zero emissions in domestic heat are electric heat pumps or converting the gas system for hydrogen,” Howard said.  

“The issue with heat pumps is that demand peaks in the winter, and you need an awful lot of energy delivered in a short space of time, the gas system we currently have does that quite well, if we wanted to do the same with electric heat pumps we would need a several fold expansion of our generation capacity and reinforcement of the distribution networks. 

“The other option would be a gas-based system but instead of methane we use hydrogen – a reverse of the change made in the 19070’s. This is not an easy thing to do however, where does all that low carbon hydrogen come from? It could be produced using renewable energy and electrolysis of water, or we could take methane and split it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which we would then have to store of couse).  

“We have calculated the capital cost of retrofitting houses with heat pumps alone at around £300bn, and the conversion to hydrogen at £200bn - both very big numbers and imply changes in people’s homes they might not be comfortable with, that’s the challenge.”  

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