Construction has a key role in a greener future. The built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Building Regulations Part L (2013) and the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) are making a positive impact, but the task ahead, to build more properties and reduce carbon emissions at the same time, remains difficult. Renewable energy is critical to meeting this balance, and renewable heating is a key element of this.

Broad barriers for uptake

The construction industry is often driven by market demand. If there is a clamour for renewable heat, the industry players will respond. However, property owners face their own obstacles. At this stage, it’s not always in the interest of construction stakeholders to push heat pumps, biomass boilers, or solar thermal panels to their client(s).

Upfront costs can be prohibitive for homeowners. A ground source heat pump (GSHP) installation will cost between £13-£20,000, and an air source heat pump (ASHP) will cost between £7-£11,000. Biomass boilers cost around £5,000 for small systems, and up to £20,000 for bigger ones. Traditional gas boilers only cost between £600-£2,000, so there is a huge gap in initial capital outlay.

The government has attempted to address this with the Assignment of Rights (AoR), whereby a nominated investor collects Domestic RHI payments in return for funding the purchase and installation of a renewable heating system in a home. This is a positive step for boosting uptake, but the process is still complicated for all involved.

Overall, three main issues remain. Firstly, there is too much admin and paperwork on all sides of the installation process. Secondly, information is inconsistent and unclear, and support from local and national authorities is insufficient. Furthermore, the marketing hasn’t raised enough awareness. It has taken E.ON’s “heat from thin air” ad to make people aware of air source heat pumps. This has come much too late for 2020 EU targets.

Construction stakeholders

I would argue that renewable heating is still seen as “the other”, rather than the primary default option for UK housing construction. Heat pumps, biomass boilers, and solar thermal panels are still considered to be alternative, rather than the norm. This mindset is a huge problem.

Property developers have access to specialists, but the financials still present a challenge. Renewable heating is appealing to buyers and tenants due to reduced utility bills, but these systems are expensive to purchase and install for developers. The chances of acquiring planning permission are greater if a development uses greener energy, and this is a key driver.

For architects, it is difficult to stay on top of the constantly-changing tech. Properties must be planned with renewable heating in mind, but structural design can depend on where a system is located, how it feeds heating distribution, and many other factors. With technological advances so frequent, architects can get lost in the void very quickly.

For builders, official information is unclear and often contradictory. As technology advances, builders need to consider how project timelines are impacted, and whether they need additional skills to incorporate new systems. Often, partners and clients expect builders to have deeper knowledge of renewable heating than is realistic. This puts pressure on project dependencies.

At the heart of the problem is communication. Stakeholders must be encouraged to learn more about renewable heating, what it needs, and what it means. From a global perspective, Britain must take responsibility and help drive momentum. According to the IEA:

“Growth in renewable heat has not matched that of renewable electricity. The direct use of renewables for heat would have to increase 32% between 2014 and 2025 to meet the 2DS target, with faster growth needed in the non-biomass segments. For example, solar thermal heat consumption would have to almost triple by 2025.”

At the forefront, property owners in the UK must have a better awareness. In the background, industry professionals must educate themselves, partner with specialists, and put pressure on authorities to simplify incentive schemes. It needs a collective effort to meet ambitious targets.

Marcus Franck, co-founder of Smart Renewable Heat and Franck Energy.

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