3 Apr 2012

The Future of Heating?

DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change) have published a document called The Future of Heating. It's what you might call a partial roadmap (yes, another one) describing how we might heat our homes and fire up what's left of our industry by 2050. I've spent a day immersed in it and have come away with some strange feelings.

It strikes me as a very strange document. It wings its way through 106 pages (typical for the genre) and goes into a fair amount of detail about many of the options facing us. Every now and then it asks for feedback, preferably evidence or experience-based. Nothing wrong with that, except that its never entirely clear whether its a narrative, a policy document or a consultation exercise. And its not entirely clear what sort of feedback they are looking for. Some of it very general, other questions are very specific.

I'm afraid I can't be much help on either front. For instance, I don't have experience of heat networks and I can't demonstrate the costs and benefits of them in reducing emissions, fuel poverty and/or fuel consumption. Neither can I tell you whether its a good idea to regulate the supply of heat through the networks. I feel so useless.

But another part of me feels that this document is actually designed to make me feel useless, because it seems to have everything under control. They don't need to know what little I know about heat networks because some geek at DECC has already been out there and done some research, and if you piece all this research together into one document, bugger me if you don't have a fully fledged strategy for a low carbon 2050. Yippee.

Only I didn't go Yippee at all. Instead I was left wondering about all the very basic questions they haven't asked. Like how much low carbon energy we will have to play with in 2050? And what will it cost? Without this information, every other policy set out in this document is nothing but conjecture.

Take §27 in the Exec Summary. It starts Reducing our demand for heat is a highly cost effective way of cutting emissions from buildings. Well, is it? No evidence is given to support this statement, it is just assumed to be the case. It might be cost effective to reduce demand by a little bit, but very expensive to reduce it by a lot (more than likely in fact). And without having some idea of what low carbon power sources will be available and how much they will cost, the cost-effectiveness of demand reduction is nothing more than guesswork.

I could go on, but it would labour the point. To be fair, the purpose of the document is to look at the many ways there are of being efficient with heat, from undertaking extreme retrofits to building heat networks and creating inter-seasonal heat stores. Even low carbon cooking gets a look-in. It's nothing if not a thorough review of all the options that are potentially there.

But it's all just a bit weightless. Without some way of knowing what energy will cost, we have no way of making any judgements about what will be worth doing, and what we can safely discard. The document ends up being nothing more than a long list of possible solutions, mixed in with boundless good intentions. We are informed that the grid will be decarbonised, but aren't told how much electricity it will supply. Nor are we informed whether we can use this electricity directly for heating, though we are given a hefty nod in that direction by the many hints dropped that heat pumps are about to save us all.

Instead, we are informed that the Green Deal, the Energy Company Obligation and Smart Meters will remove upfront costs, help vulnerable consumers and enable people to make the best use of their energy. Maybe, but at this point it starts to read like an election manifesto, and I begin to loose the will to carry on reading.....


  1. BuildingstoatApril 05, 2012

    Great article as always.

    In technical circles, the problem at hand is analysed, possible solutions are examined and solutions that produce outcomes closest to the desired ones are chosen and then implemented.

    In politics decisions are made that are possible, fairly easy to understand and carry out and which please/reward the right (most powerful) interest groups. These decisions are then retrospectively justified by tying them in to policy objectives and papers such as this.

    I would suggest that this document is not supposed to be clear and definitive, that would only limit ministers' room to move later on. It is supposed to provide plausible cover for whatever the government finds expedient later on when a decision is eventually made. The best practical outcome is little importance compared to the best political outcome in a world of constantly shifting priorities.

    "Instead, we are informed that the Green Deal, the Energy Company Obligation and Smart Meters will remove upfront costs, help vulnerable consumers and enable people to make the best use of their energy"

    In other words whatever the government decides to do will lead to the bet of all possible worlds.

  2. It's a good point that you make. It's a very "political" document in the sense that it doesn't make any commitments.

    But then you wonder why go to all the trouble to write it in the first place?