Two announcements the Government made at the end of 2020 will shape how London’s built environment is designed and constructed, both now and in the future. The first is a one-year extension to the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI); the second a 10-point plan which has been touted as the beginnings of the UK’s green industrial revolution.
It’s hardly surprising these announcements have been made. The UK’s legally binding pledge to reduce emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050 has forced a rethink in strategy around carbon reduction, not least in buildings which research shows accounts for 45% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Disruption caused by the pandemic has also stifled progress in the UK, effectively forcing a new end date of March 2022 to give eligible projects enough time and support to be completed. This move follows the Government’s earlier decision to extend the domestic RHI, which is expected to save 1.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions by retrofitting some 18,000 homes with green heating technology. Alongside this, the Green Homes Grant has also been extended a further year until March 2022 to give homeowners more time to install low carbon technologies.
Although coming about through less-than-ideal conditions, the new deadline for non-domestic buildings has been welcomed. The scheme provides financial incentives to increase the uptake of renewable heat across the public and private sectors, with eligible developments receiving quarterly payments over 20 years based on the amount of heat generated from a renewable source.
For specifiers designing renewable heating systems on commercial buildings or small-to-medium scale district heating projects, the extension will provide crucial financial support ahead of the Green Heat Network Scheme, coming into force in April 2022. It will also help organisations avoid missing the start date for their projects, in turn protecting investment and staving off the threat of job losses throughout the supply chain. After a year like 2020, this is vital.
Giving businesses breathing space, however, is just one benefit of this extension. I believe it will also have a galvanising effect for the renewable heat industry, making options like heat pumps and district heating a more attractive proposition. Greater London Authority guidance even makes direct reference to these technologies when designing buildings. Policy 4A.5 states: "Boroughs… should maximise the opportunities for providing new networks that are supplied by decentralised energy [and] ensure that all new development is designed to connect to the heating and cooling network."
Other legislation in the domestic market suggests that adoption of these technologies will only grow more important with time. The Future Homes Standard, for example, will not allow new builds on to the gas network while updates to the Standard Assessment Procedure will lower the electricity carbon factor. This will make the installation of low-carbon electric technologies vital going forward.
It also seems that the Future Homes Standard 2025 timeline was initially moved forward to 2023 as part of the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which was unveiled in November 2020. However, this unfortunately appears to have now reverted back to the original 2025 introduction date. This is disappointing news as new homes represent quick wins for carbon reduction, in contrast to existing properties, which are harder to treat.
Laying the Foundations
Parts of the Government’s 10-point plan also bode well for the uptake of low-carbon heating in the capital. An aim to install 600,000 heat pumps annually by 2028, for example, is a very encouraging sign. This technology has already been proven to reduce emissions in both individual and district heating applications, and provides those in the built environment with an immediate way to decarbonise buildings in line with net zero legislation.The Government’s proposed figure represents a 20-times increase on current deployment – this will surely have a profoundly positive effect if it’s achieved.
Indeed, the importance of heat pumps in reducing emissions can be seen in the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget, which was published in December. Specifically, the CCC – whose recommendations informed the UK’s landmark Net Zero legislation – advocated the Government exceed their existing targets and install 1m heat pumps annually by 2030. As well as this, the committee also proposed all new build homes to have a heat pump or low carbon heat network and all new district heat connections to be low-carbon by 2025. Announcements like this, from an organisation as influential as the CCC, further underline the key role heat pumps stand to play in London’s ongoing decarbonisation.
There can be little doubt that ambitious targets like net zero challenge industry to do more. However, this need not leave people wondering how such bold objectives will be realised, especially in such challenging conditions. Implementing proven solutions in the short- to medium-term will make the goal far more manageable and ensure efforts remain on track. Though not without its challenges, hydrogen production will play a role in the future zero carbon landscape, as will new generations of heat pumps and district heating schemes. While future technologies will play their part in making net zero a reality, tried-and-tested solutions should be prioritised today if we are to begin offsetting the UK’s economy in a legitimate way.
Immediate action is already being taken, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announcing a new Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) for heat networks in December. The establishing of this DPS, which will allow £22 billion of private grants from potential funders, will accompany public funding and create a market for this technology. Heat delivered by heating networks will require a ten-fold investment if the sector is to meet its 2050 net zero commitments, so additional funding secured through this DPS will prove key to this.
Other plans, like the £1 billion in funding starting next year to decarbonise domestic and public buildings, also signal a step in the right direction. This acknowledges a need to significantly reduce the impact of new developments, as well as London’s existing building stock of which 80% is expected to still be standing by 2050. It’s this statistic that restates the need for a long-term vision, with viable options and incentives that accelerate the built environment’s transition to a greener future. While this places some of the emphasis back on government, architects and specifiers can clearly play their part by future-proofing today’s designs. This will provide the warmer, more efficient buildings we need while also limiting the threat of serious climate-related disruption.