Fit for the green revolution

The renewables experts at Nesta give their advice on how to make the most of the future of eco-friendly technology


Climate change is the biggest challenge of our era. To stop our buildings contributing, we need to stop burning gas and oil to heat them.


New ‘green’ technology is coming to the fore. Research projects on low-carbon heating, batteries, energy efficiency and other innovations are booming, and the sector attracted US$220 billion in investment from 2013-2021.


The most promising alternatives are highly efficient electric heating devices such as heat pumps. Household heating is likely to be electrified in future, which will have a profound impact on the way electricians work.


Below, we’ve picked out four green tech trends from our research that we think could shape electricians’ work around household heating for the rest of the decade.

New ways to pay for home heating


The Heat in Buildings Strategy for Scotland proposes a timeline in which all new buildings will be required to install low-carbon heating systems from 2024, followed by the phase-out of fossil-fuelled boilers in off-gas areas from 2025 and all properties by 2030.


“British Gas is offering 0% interest on heat pump installations and others are likely to follow”

Heat pumps are the most well-known type of low-carbon heating, so it follows that we’ll see installations soar over the next decade.


Gas boilers will be less common

Our research shows that heat pumps are being discussed more in the public; we’ve seen mentions on the rise in UK parliament and in newspapers such as the Guardian.


But they are expensive, setting consumers back by £10,500 on average. Even with the Home Energy Scotland loan and cashback offer, this is still more expensive than a boiler in most homes.


We may see new business models emerge in future that allow homeowners to install heat pumps without the high upfront cost. Energy Systems Catapult, a technology and innovation centre, has trialled the idea of ‘heat as a service’, where people paid a fixed amount to keep their homes warm for a certain number of hours each day.


This could affect electricians’ relationships with clients. These models will likely be organised via a third party, so you may not deal with customers directly, and jobs could be scheduled by large companies that bring together electricians, plumbers and other skilled trades.


“Energy Systems Catapult, a technology and innovation centre, has trialled the idea of ‘heat as a service’, where people paid a fixed amount to keep their homes warm for a certain number of hours each day”

New financing options may also come into play, changing the way customers pay for your work. British Gas is offering 0% interest on heat pump installations and others are likely to follow. This could boost demand for heat pumps and we may see new tools that improve productivity, for example by making time-consuming tasks like filling forms, doing heat loss surveys and buying equipment quicker and less painful.

Low-carbon heating skills needed


There is plenty of research under way on heat pumps and heat storage – we estimate that research projects involving heat pumps are receiving over £12 million in new research funding each year from UK Research and Innovation.


We compared research trends for different types of low-carbon heating technologies, and found that research into heat pumps and heat storage is currently ‘hot’, meaning there is a large amount of new funding and that growth in this area is high.


Research funding trends for decarbonising heating. Average magnitude and growth between 2016 and 2020, based on analysis of the UKRl’s Gateway to Research (GtR) portal data

One example is the ReFlex Orkney project which secured £15 million in funding to install and operate heat pumps, hydrogen fuel cells for heating and heat storage systems in Orkney. Scottish heat battery company Sunamp also raised £4.5 million venture capital funding in 2020 to support its international expansion.


So what does this mean for electricians and other trades? Many will need to train up to install heat pumps and energy storage devices. At Nesta, we have called on the UK Government to develop a skills plan that will allow large numbers of tradespeople to upskill quickly to keep up with demand.


“Developing a highly trained and competent workforce is critical to our net zero ambitions,” Douglas Morrison, Impact Director for the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre has said in response to our research.


“Supported by a national framework for competency development, we can create a workforce that can specify, design, install and maintain low-carbon heating and energy efficiency technologies to the highest standards.”


”Realistically, hydrogen won’t be heating our homes within the next nine years, during which time we need to reduce emissions by 70% to meet our targets”

Heat pump installation will also require closer working with other professionals: each job will require heating engineers, plumbers and electricians. Our research has also shown large research funding support and growing venture capital investment for technologies to retrofit buildings to maximise energy efficiency, as well as for energy management measures like smart home tech, so it is likely that skills will be needed in these areas too.

The future of heating is electric, not hydrogen


The use of hydrogen as a form of energy is expected to grow. The Scottish Government’s Hydrogen Action Plan has set an ambition of five gigawatts installed hydrogen production capacity by 2030 and 25 gigawatts by 2045.


It has also provided £6.9 million support towards the cost of the H100 project in Fife, a world-first demonstration of a 100% hydrogen energy system.


But our analysis finds that this could be early-stage hype, and hydrogen may not become adopted as a heating method. In fact, the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies has said that it will be “particularly challenging to convert a large number of small domestic consumers to hydrogen”, and that it is more likely to be used for industrial applications such as iron and steel production, as well as transport.


Kyle Usher, Nesta’s Mission Manager in Scotland, says: “Even if hydrogen could become a realistic and scalable solution for the majority of the population at some time in the future, that is not the case now.


Realistically, hydrogen won’t be heating our homes within the next nine years, during which time we need to reduce emissions by 70% to meet our targets.”

A fair heating revolution


Fuel poverty costs lives – cold homes cause as many deaths as breast or prostate cancer. In 2019, an estimated one in four households in Scotland was in fuel poverty. With the cost of living crisis dominating headlines in 2022, we are likely to see these figures rise.


Scotland’s Fuel Poverty Strategy aims to decarbonise the heating in one million homes by 2030 and remove poor energy efficiency as a driver of fuel poverty. Schemes such as Warmer Homes Scotland and the Home Energy Scotland service provide support to households on how they can improve the energy efficiency of their home, as well as financial support to install insulation and improve central heating systems.


It is likely we’ll see even more innovative approaches over the next decade. Our analysis identified some research projects into low-carbon heating and energy efficiency and management that specifically mention fuel poverty. One example is the development of an energy efficiency investment optimisation system by CoControl for social landlords, or a new business model for community energy generation developed by Energy Local.

Conclusion


In summary, these four trends highlight an appetite for low-carbon heating. We’ve seen that research and development into low-carbon heating and energy efficiency is growing and we’ll see the heat pump industry flourish over the next few years. Our research has shown that the direction of travel in green tech is clear – the future will be electrified. Electricians and the wider construction sector will be vital in the effort to deploy green tech across the nation.


To find out more about the research that informed these trends, you can access our full green tech report here.

Additional content: Laurie Smith, Head Of Foresight Research, Nesta and Siobhan Chan, Content Editor, Nesta.



 

Finding the green tech ‘sweet spots’


Nesta identified these four trends by using data science to track the growth of climate innovations, looking at research funding, investment and mentions in the news and in the UK parliament. This approach let them cut through the hype and develop a clearer picture of which innovations can make the leap to large-scale impact.


 

Who is Nesta?


As the UK’s innovation agency for social good, Nesta designs, scales and tests new solutions to society’s biggest problems, changing millions of lives for the better. It is committed to creating a sustainable future by accelerating the decarbonisation of household activities in the UK.


Find out more at www.nesta.org.uk

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