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Direct electric heating key for decarbonisation of heating in the UK

Report on UK construction's attitude towards direct electric heating - discussing building specification

Launched in the latter part of 2022, the report ‘Working towards Net Zero’ sheds light on the UK construction industry’s attitudes toward direct electric heating and decarbonisation. In this article our managing director Alistair Bell unpacks the findings.

Since the UK government set its 2050 target for Net Zero, efforts have been made across the economy to reduce emissions. In the construction industry that has meant decarbonising supply chains, replacing non-renewable energy with renewables, and using low-carbon heating methods. In fact, the most recent Climate Change Committee (CCC) parliamentary report highlighted that for the UK to meet its 2050 Net Zero target, at least half of the current heat demand for buildings must be supplied by low-carbon sources by 2035.

The transition to low-carbon heating is therefore essential and applies to all construction across the UK. Yet, the transition is more pressing for residential buildings. Residential homes are by far the largest contributor to UK buildings emissions. Building emissions make up 20% of the UK total emissions, and residential homes account for almost 80% of that total.

The UK construction sector sees the need for change. It sees insulation and low-carbon heating as essential to making that change, especially when paired with renewable tariffs. And it sees decarbonisation as a challenge and opportunity for growth, with upskilling the future workforce a necessary step to realising that opportunity.

One size does not fit all

Decarbonising heat in UK buildings is not a single solution problem. Several methods must be used to reach the UK government’s goals; one size doesn’t fit all.

What the Working towards Net Zero report reveals is that 48% of construction workers rank installing low-carbon heating as the most or second-most important method for reducing carbon emissions. Above that, efficient insulation is seen as the top priority.

As the UK grid incorporates more renewable energy, direct electric heating has become a viable low-carbon heating method for the construction industry. Ultimately it is the electricity grid’s ‘generation mix’ that determines the carbon intensity of any form of electric heating. So, as renewables continue to replace fossil fuels, electricity is becoming a low-carbon source of energy.

Pairing a direct electric heating method, such as electric underfloor heating or electric radiators, with a renewable electricity tariff, will prove to be one of the most effective ways of decarbonising heating in residential and non-residential settings.

The approach to retrofitting

New homes need low-carbon heating. But without replacing and retrofitting older homes with low-carbon alternatives, it won’t be possible to meet the Net Zero target.

There are 29 million homes that need to have low-carbon heating methods retrofitted by 2050, which is one of the main priorities for Climate Change Committee (CCC). As our report reveals this outlook is shared by the UK construction industry, as 62% of industry professionals report that retrofitting is the single biggest challenge to decarbonisation.

However, the construction industry is prepared to tackle this challenge, and direct electric heating solutions are a preferred method. Direct electric heating is seen as a better overall solution by almost half of the construction industry, second to the use of hydrogen boilers.

But, while methods like heat pumps are impactful and popular, they’re not seen as suitable for the varied UK housing stock. 52% of UK industry professionals believe that direct electric solutions are the right solution for modest properties and apartments, due to the fact they’re smaller, easy to install, and do not require external equipment that would be unsuitable for multi-storey buildings.

Interest is on the increase

The report also reveals an increase in consumer interest in low-carbon heating alternatives. But current energy prices are high, and electricity is often unfairly seen to be a more expensive form of energy than oil or gas, which is having a deterrent effect on the uptake of low-carbon direct electric alternatives. 79% of respondents in the construction industry believe that high running costs have deterred customers from installing direct electric heating.

What’s required is a change of image. Too many people have negative associations based on old, outmoded electric heating solutions like storage heaters. 71% of the construction industry believe these older electric heating methods have a negative impact on how consumers perceive modern, low-carbon direct electric alternatives.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Modern direct electric heating solutions are much more efficient than older solutions, and direct electric is 100% efficient at the point of usage, compared to gas heating where energy is lost throughout the system. They also require lower installation and maintenance costs and won’t be phased out by the UK government over the next 15 years (unlike gas).

Opportunities and potential barriers

The construction industry is keen to use low-carbon direct electric heating solutions, particularly in retrofitting older, less spacious buildings, and in multi-storey buildings. But the industry also sees the challenge of retrofitting as an opportunity for growth. 64% of those surveyed believe decarbonisation is an opportunity.

But, as with many areas in the UK economy, there is a skills gap between the currently available talent, and the required talent. 69% of construction workers believe that while there’s an opportunity for growth, there isn’t sufficient workforce expertise to embrace that opportunity.
What’s needed is a concerted effort to upskill the current workforce. If the industry can do this sooner rather than later, it won’t miss the chance for growth and it will more easily meet its own decarbonisation goals.

Crucially, direct electric poses a less of a challenge to upskilling as compared to other low-carbon heating methods, such as heat pumps. Direct electric involves less paperwork and is easier to install, particularly in buildings that have restricted space. The upskilling requirement, therefore, will is significantly less onerous for the industry, meaning direct electric heating offers a route to embrace the opportunity more readily for growth.

Over the coming decades, the construction industry is on track to transform. Heating solution providers that offer viable, low-carbon alternatives can help to usher in that transformation.


What next?

To download the full ‘Working towards Net Zero’ report, click on the link below.

Download ‘Working towards Net Zero’.

If you have any questions about your electric heating project or data contained within the report, please contact our team.

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