by Callum Rae, Senior R&D Engineer at PNDC.
It’s an increasingly familiar pattern, but one that never fails to leave me cold.
The session on “The Future of Heat” at Utility Week’s Future Networks, Heat and Transport conference (held February 2023 in Birmingham) started with the best of intentions. An array of engaging and respected speakers from across the sector had been gathered before an enthusiastic audience. This included representatives from energy suppliers, academia, consumer organisations, housing associations and both electricity and gas network operators. Among the topics of conversation were the scale and urgency of the task at hand, the vital role consumers will play in the transition and the technologies which can be used to implement it.
Those of you familiar with the low-carbon heating discourse will no doubt recognise what happened next. No sooner had the floor been opened for the first Q&A session than the battle lines between ‘Team Hydrogen/Green Gas’ and ‘Team Heat Pump’ were being drawn. Claims made about the size and scope of the role of each technology in the net-zero transition were disputed, and competing views regarding the cost, viability and sustainability of the roll-out of each technology were exchanged.
This is a tale which is played out at industry events with increasing regularity. So too online, where the debate on forums such as Twitter and LinkedIn is at its most tribal. Even academic publications (traditionally home to rigour of a more scientific than emotional nature) are becoming battlegrounds for this inter-technological, intra-sectoral bickering.
When you consider some of the unintended effects that this adversarial atmosphere could give rise to, it begs the question whether it’s becoming detrimental to the wider heat decarbonisation transition.
Such heated debate risks diverting attention from other equally important aspects of what is a complex and multi-faceted challenge. Those in the industry who have been calling for increased focus on heat networks or energy efficiency upgrades of late will no doubt attest to that.
The need to engage effectively with consumers is widely recognised as one of the major challenges associated with heating decarbonisation, and is complicated by a long-standing lack of trust between consumers and energy providers. How can we as an industry expect to bring consumers along with us on this journey if we can’t present a united front? This risks giving rise to unclear messaging and the confusion and eventual disengagement of consumers.
Both sides of the argument seem well aware of the urgent need for action. So perhaps the most damning indictment is that it wastes time which we don’t have.
How did we get here?
In this instance, intra-sectoral competition can be seen as having a number of causes. An element of commercial competition is perhaps inevitable in a sector where incumbents are fighting for their future whilst disruptive new entrants seek to establish themselves in a rapidly changing market. The polarising nature of online forums might also be partly to blame. Maybe it is human nature to seek out ‘silver bullet’ solutions, even if (as in this case) all sides agree there isn’t one?
In all likelihood it is a combination of the above. However, it could be argued that the most important question to be asked is whether there is even a need for it in the first place. Any high-level or long-term view of heat decarbonisation will point to the need for a range of technological solutions. The UK Government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy calls for a range of technologies and consumer offerings, stating “We see heat pumps, heat networks and hydrogen as potentially playing a pivotal role in decarbonising heat.”
Despite this, a key battleground seems to be the perceived viability of each technology for widespread deployment in households. This runs the risk of over-simplifying and homogenising the heating sector. The UK is undoubtedly still in the early stages of its heat decarbonisation journey, and our experience of rolling out either technology is still limited.
Of the UK’s total annual heat demand in 2019, 75% was taken up by space and water heating, with 73% of this being met using gas and a further 10% with oil. The remaining 25% was used in non-heating applications, including cooking and industrial process heating etc. Such a diverse range of applications and scales will require a similarly diverse range of technological solutions, and with over 600 TWh of heat consumed in 2019, the pie appears more than large enough to around.
So if the low-carbon heating market is large enough and diverse enough for both heat pumps and hydrogen to play significant roles, why are we allowing ourselves to be bogged down by arguments over technological superiority? At the level and timescale of government planning and investment, vying for position is perhaps to be expected given the size of the potential market. But in the short and medium term, it could be argued that the two are rarely in direct competition, which makes such vociferous debate largely redundant.
Where do we go from here?
In summary, it seems increasingly clear that inter-technological competition within the low-carbon heat sector, while relevant in some cases, is having a detrimental effect on the transition to net zero in others.
There are undoubtedly some people and organisations for whom the hydrogen vs heat pump debate represents a direct choice, whether at a building, district or regional scale. And in their case the arguments for/against each option are relevant and compelling. There are, however, vast portions of the heat sector which are clearly more suited to one technology or the other.
It seems reasonable to suggest that effort should be refocused on the identification of the most appropriate contexts and applications for each technology (a process which is largely complete already) followed by the acceleration of their effective deployment. This in itself is no mean feat, and requires more progress to be made on providing a stable and supportive policy environment, appropriate incentives, regulatory and market reform, informed consumer engagement and effective knowledge sharing and dissemination.
With so much to be getting on with, perhaps it’s time for a truce?