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COP26: The Drive To Meet Sustainability Goals

By Vaillant Group, an Executive Member of the Sustainable Energy Association

As the COP26 summit looms closer on the horizon, there is much talk about sustainability and cutting carbon emissions across business, transport, homes and beyond. How we get there, however, is still awaiting some clarification. Steve Keeton, Director of External Affairs and Future Portfolio at Vaillant, comments on what is needed to ensure the UK can stay on track to meet its net zero targets, the challenges faced, and the commitments looked for prior to the summit taking place.

The Future Homes Standard, the Government’s 10-point plan and ongoing advice from the Climate Change Committee, all put forward a framework as to how we could achieve the target of reaching net zero by 2050. Indeed, we have heard the figure of fitting 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028 mentioned at length since it was set out in the 10-point plan, sitting alongside an expected ban on gas boilers by the mid-2030’s. However, there are several factors that need to be in place before either can be achieved and move the UK away from its reliance on natural gas. Changes to infrastructure, training of installers and homeowner behaviour will all be crucial. Clarity is the biggest necessity here.

It is therefore hoped that the delayed and long-anticipated Heat and Building Strategy, now expected to be announced in September, will give a more detailed path to how these changes will be met and the key building blocks that will be put in place to get there. From measures to increase heat pump installations to new incentives to encourage homeowners to take up the technology, the strategy needs to rebuild the confidence in opting for low carbon systems that was perhaps thwarted by the recent, failed Green Homes Grant. Although heat pumps sales are expected to hit around the 85,000 mark over the coming year, it is clear this falls some way short of the anticipated 600,000 target due in 2028.

Of course, there is no silver bullet for the technology that will solve this challenge. Heat pump technology is here today and is becoming more established, and hydrogen is expected to be a big factor in the march to decarbonisation and is on the cards for early in the next decade. The Hydrogen Strategy due to be revealed in August, will give us the direction of travel. Clarity on the roll-out and production of hydrogen is key. To ensure we as an industry, and that homes around the country are ready, we need to know where domestic supply fits into the picture, and when it will be available. It is expected that industry and transport will receive hydrogen first, so when will it feasibly be available for widescale use for heating our homes? Questions also need to be answered on how production is scaled to meet demand and how it will be funded. Homeowner fuel bills and taxation are obviously going to be contentious options.

Overcoming the challenges

One of the biggest challenges to reaching decarbonisation goals lies with how we successfully carry out widescale retrofit of low carbon technology into the UK’s homes. When specifying for new build properties, heat pumps can be factored in from the outset, but this will only form a small percentage of the 600,000 target each year. Most heat pumps will need to be installed in existing properties where the housing stock is diverse and not fully insulated. For mass take up to work successfully, address action will be needed to be made to improve the fabric of these properties, and secondly, to determine how upgrades can be made to the existing system in place to ensure the technology works at its best.

Bearing in mind the relatively short timescales being talked about – 2028 for mass heat pump installation and 2030’s for hydrogen boilers coming on stream – there will need to be enough knowledgeable heating engineers out in the field too, not only to carry out the upgrades but to provide robust advice to homeowners looking to change their heating system. When it comes to retrofitting in an existing property, installers will need to be able to design and specify the most realistic solution for that property, taking a more bespoke approach rather than suggesting one technology for all properties. Where a heat pump will be ideal for one home, a hybrid install or a hydrogen boiler, when this available, may be a better option for another. It is imperative the right technology is specified upfront to benefit both the homeowner and the environment.

We are currently looking at around 1,070 MCS accredited heat pump installers but this needs to increase to around the 26,000 mark to install the volumes of heat pumps mentioned. Again, clarity on how heating installers are encouraged to upskill and help drive the low carbon future forward is much needed.

How we take homeowners on the low carbon journey equally plays an important part in reaching this goal. Afterall, they will largely be shouldering the cost to change and likely to be resistant. So, they need to have confidence and understanding of the heating technology they need, how it works and the benefits.

Heat pump technology is effective, but it works quite differently from the boilers the UK is so comfortable with and will require a shift in mindset and behaviour. Many homeowners expect to just swap a boiler for a heat pump and run it in the same way, turning it on / off or reaching for the dial at will, which could lead to disappointment if not managed correctly from the start. Steps are needed to make sure homeowners know what to expect from the install, from it taking longer than a straight boiler swap to understanding why the radiators aren’t hot to the touch, and the changes they need to make once it is in and how they run it, to ensure satisfaction.

Leading by example

It is also important that business and manufacturers lead by example here too. As part of larger, global group, Vaillant Group has the aim to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030 to support the aims of the United Nations and the EU on climate protection and sustainable development.

The Group’s climate strategy also includes the aim to offset the remaining emissions by means of afforestation projects, planting new areas of forest in emerging countries. Specific projects are currently being planned and selected in Central and South America and the newly created areas of forest will fully offset the emissions remaining after the reduction measures by 2030.

On a UK level, Vaillant is working with Tiny Forests and Earth Watch to create a series of urban forests across the country. The intention here is to build community engagement for people from the surrounding area and to reconnect to nature by providing easily accessible and newly created ‘green’ spaces in built up areas, that not only encourage wildlife but also make a positive contribution to carbon reduction targets.

As a heating manufacturer, it is important that companies, like Vaillant, aid the move to a low carbon future through the development and supply of the most efficient technologies, whether heat pumps, hydrogen boiler or a hybrid configuration.

Gearing up to support the acceleration of heat pump technology take-up, Vaillant’s sales support team is being enlarged, training activities are being increased and different types of courses are coming on stream. Also, following a £3 million investment, Vaillant is in the process of moving the production of its aroTHERM plus heat pump to its HQ in Belper, where the product will roll off the lines in 2022. Not only does this boost the local economy, but it also ensures Vaillant can give UK installers the full story about how heat pumps are manufactured, how to correctly specify products, training on the installation as well providing after-sales support, all from one location.

To make the process as energy efficient as possible, the factory itself also incorporates efficient technologies, installed as part of recent renovation improvements. Solar panels on the roof power the factory and the offices are heated by ground source heat pumps, and further improvements continue to roll out as the programme progresses.

Involvement in the development of hydrogen-ready boilers is another piece of the puzzle we are currently progressing. Vaillant is supporting multiple projects across the UK and Europe that are exploring how to make this vision a reality, such as HyDeploy at Keele University, which aims to prove that blending up to 20% volume of hydrogen with natural gas is a safe and greener alternative. Work is also being carried out by Vaillant Group regarding the viability of using up to 100% hydrogen.

The aim to meet net zero by 2050 is ambitious and we can already see many of the challenges ahead as we start to make the transition. A clear roadmap that offers support to installers and homeowners, and, crucially, ensures they are taken willingly on the journey to low carbon heating, is vital. We hope that the run up to the COP26 summit sees the Heat and Building and the Hydrogen Strategies give that much needed clarity on how we realistically move the UK’s housing stock from a reliance on natural gas to alternative fuel sources so that we can all play our part in decarbonisation with confidence.


Wednesday, August 25th, 2021