With efforts to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change increasing across the globe, the government has planned a ‘decisive shift’ away from fossil fuel, with new gas boiler installations to be phased out by mid-2030s.
Set out in the government’s December 2020 energy white paper, ‘Powering our net zero future’, new measures will be introduced to start switching home heating, at scale, to low-carbon alternatives.
If you currently have a gas or oil boiler, you won’t need to replace it. But it does mean that, from the mid-2030s, you won’t be able to get a traditional gas or oil boiler installed when yours breaks.
Instead a low-carbon heating system, or an appliance that can be converted to use a clean fuel, will need to be installed. Systems such as a heat pumps or hydrogen-ready boilers will be likely candidates to replace gas and oil boilers in the future.
How we heat our homes in the future, is set to become very different to today.
What does this shift mean for the UK, and how does the technology potentially set to take over from traditional boilers work? Keep reading to find out more.
Looking for a new gas or oil boiler right now? Under the new proposals, you will still be able to install these until mid-2030s. To find a reliable boiler that won’t let you down, see our Which boiler brand to buy guide.
Powering a net-zero future
According to 2020 research by the Climate Change Committee, gas and oil boilers currently make up more than 90% of the UK’s home heating stock.
This percentage could decrease over the next decade, as initiatives set out in the government’s ‘Powering our net zero future’ energy white paper aim to:
- Increase voluntary installation of heat pumps from 30,000 a year to 600,000 a year by 2028 – with a planned Clean Heat Grant to support installations from 2022.
- Phase out installations of gas boilers by mid-2030s – with all newly installed heating systems from this date being low-carbon or able to be converted to use clean fuel.
- Ensure new homes built from 2025 onwards are zero-carbon ready – including consulting on whether it’s feasible and appropriate to end the connection of new-build homes to the gas grid.
- Consult in 2021 on the role hydrogen-ready appliances will play in the future – with large-scale trails of hydrogen-fuelled towns by 2023 and 2025.
This paper comes after the Committee on Climate Change recommended the government phase out new gas boilers, unless they’re hydrogen-ready, by 2033.
The advisory body also said sales of oil boilers should be phased out by 2028, and new gas boilers should be hydrogen-ready by 2025. As of December 2020, the government has not yet committed to these aims.
The plan is to give householders, suppliers, installers and manufacturers long lead times to prepare for the transition.
These changes are also designed to take place at the point of least disruption – for example, when a boiler reaches the end of its life and would need replacing anyway.
Gas boilers phased out
Current gas boilers are about 90% efficient at converting energy from burning fuel into heat for your home.
However, they burn natural gas. This releases carbon dioxide as a by-product, which contributes significantly to climate change.
As shown below, heating accounts for the highest proportion of UK household carbon emissions.
|Sector||Yearly CO2 emissions, in kilograms|
Data from Energy Saving Trust, based on household emissions in 2017
Under the new plans, from mid-2030s onwards, if your gas boiler breaks it will need replacing with a low-carbon heating system.
The ones being pushed are heat pumps and hydrogen-ready boilers.
Could heat pumps replace boilers?
Heat pumps are a low-carbon heating system. They work by extracting heat from the air or ground and transferring it to your home.
After absorbing the heat from the ground/air, the heat pump increases its temperature.
They work a bit like a fridge, but in reverse. They are relatively cheap to run, with a small carbon footprint.
The infographic below shows in more detail how a ground-source heat pump heats a building.
They can be installed in homes that have outdoor space. This is needed to bury the ground loop or install the air-source heat pump.
They work best in houses that are well insulated and have lower temperature heating systems – like underfloor heating.
Older houses tend to have poor insulation, and this will need to be improved in order for a heat pump to be able to get those houses to a comfortable temperature.
Heat-pump radiators also operate at a much lower temperature. Older homes often aren’t well insulated, so for most people this would mean paying out for new, bigger radiators to spread the (lower) heat more quickly.
They’re also expensive to install. The installation of an air source heat pump in a medium-sized home is around £8,000, going up to £14,000 for a ground-source heat pump. This is more than three to five times the cost of a gas boiler.
The government’s Clean Heat Grant, due to launch in 2022, will be a successor to the Renewable Heat Incentive and also offer financial support to homes wishing to install a heat-pump system.
It’s clear there are real barriers to converting many of our gas and oil-heated homes to heat pumps in the near future.
Could hydrogen be used for heating?
When hydrogen burns, the only by-product is water. You need electricity to produce hydrogen in the first place, but it’s still significantly greener than natural gas.
In theory, it should be possible to use hydrogen in the UK’s existing gas network. Being able to keep the existing heating structure makes hydrogen fuel an attractive prospect.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done before the UK’s gas network can be switched over to low-carbon hydrogen.
The Heating and Hotwater Industry Council has developed a technical definition for a hydrogen-ready boiler to ensure safe products are made, with a pledge for conversions to take less than an hour to complete by a gas safe installer.
This has been developed in anticipation of the scenario where the government follows the Climate Change Committee’s advice and mandates that, from 2025, all new gas boilers must be hydrogen-ready.
Manufacturers such as Worcester Bosch have developed working prototypes for boilers that run on a 100% hydrogen fuel supply.
However, mixing hydrogen with natural gas – at a low enough blend – would mean no changes would be needed to the majority of existing UK boilers.
A 2019 hydrogen gas trial at Keele University introduced a 20% hydrogen mix to the 130 homes and faculty buildings at the university, with no ill effects. Larger trials in the North of England are on track to go ahead in the early 2020s.
A 20% hydrogen mix across the entire network would work with current modern boilers, and would save six million tonnes of carbon emissions – equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road.
It’s too early to say with absolute confidence what the heating sector will look like after these dramatic changes.
But if we’re serious about reaching net zero, then big changes to how we all heat our homes will need to play a part.
Start reducing your carbon emissions now – use our expert five tips to reduce your heating bills
What are the best boilers in 2020?
Dramatic shifts in the future of heating may be a few years off, but there are still steps we can take to reduce the impact current systems have on the environment.
If you are looking to replace your current boiler, use our expert advice on how to buy the best boiler to make sure you get the right model for your home.
Using the correct amount of energy to heat your home will also reduce your carbon emissions and save you money on your heating bills.
An easy way to do this is to install a smart thermostat to give you greater control over your heating – check our smart thermostat reviews to find the right model for you.