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Home » Leading Issues: UK’s shaky progress on heat pump installations and China’s clean energy transformation.

Leading Issues: UK’s shaky progress on heat pump installations and China’s clean energy transformation.


Shaun Fitzgerald

Director of Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University. Speaks and writes regularly about climate change & the need for repairing the climate.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald spoke with Colin Murray from the BBC about two leading climate issues; the rate of installation of heat pumps in the UK, and the scale of the impact that China currently has in the global effort to transform their society from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy systems.

The UK’s flagship government plan to make household heating more planet friendly, by installing heat pumps to properties in England and Wales, the ‘Boiler Upgrade Scheme, (BUS), was meant to issue 30,000 grants in England and Wales issued but only managed half of that in the first year.  

A new study highlights that China has raced ahead on wind and solar power, progress that will help global carbon emissions far faster than expected. However, also stated in the report is China’s continued development of new coal power stations that are the worst source of carbon emissions.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE 

First of all, the targets do need to be large. Because, we are emitting over 40 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year and we’ve got to get the net figure down to zero. Is it easy to even visualise what 40 Gigatonnes is? 

It is an enormous challenge and housing is a very significant part of the problem, certainly in the developed world. We’ve got to go and get people off fossil fuels and, for heating, which is the big problem in homes, that means oil boilers, gas boilers, have to go. 

The best solution is heat pumps but we are so short of where we need to be with installations. The target is to get to something like 600,000 a year being adopted by 2030. And the figure you just said, 30,000 now, we are about half that. We are so far off it, we’ve got to do a lot more.

Colin Murray BBC 

You have got to have the infrastructure though and there is a lack of installers. The £5000 grant goes towards the cost. It costs significantly more to properly insulate homes. We are starting in a place where so many homes were built long ago and they are far behind to start with, in terms of proper insulation.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE 

The raw cost of the heat pump, for a medium sized home, is between £15 to £18,000, and the government is providing a £5000 grant. So what does that mean? When your gas boiler dies, that is the obvious time when you think right, you are going have a capital outlay anyway, to replace something. But the cost of a new gas boiler being installed is so much cheaper than actually getting the air source heat pump installed. 

Then there is the work needed on the home to make that the heat pump works efficiently, you are looking at a significant retrofit to the house. And the shocking thing is that the amount of retrofits on homes, in other words, the actual insulations being put into attics, and things like this, has gone down in the last 12 months.

We have got a lot of work to do to help encourage homeowners and home users, that when they have an event, which is the obvious time to go and switch off the the oil and gas boilers, to get electric heat pumps into the space. Also that we provide them with the financial wherewithal to do this.

Then secondly, and this is important, because if you’re going to have more than the boiler done, begin to have some work done on your home to improve your insulation levels, then that’s a bit of a disruption to the homeowners. We also want to trust the people that are coming into the home and therefore the work that’s being done. There is an increasing trust level that we also need with our contractors and our builders.

Colin Murray BBC 

Should we be supporting that side of the industry in terms of getting more people with an additional talent, in terms of fitting gas boilers, etcetera, to transfer over into the heat-pump industry?

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE 

As with all industries, it is supply and demand. If you provide the demand, then people will start to get the necessary skills. So we are right to say that we don’t have enough for installers for the future demand, but the future demand is not the current demand. So we have got to go and create the overall framework by which we increase the demand.

Then we will have the installers wanting to get their skills up to be able to do this. It really is important that we get the appropriate skill levels within the contractor base. But at the moment, it’s not just saying, “Oh, well, the problem is we don’t have enough installers!” We have got to create the holistic system of supply and  demand, and we need to increase them both.

Colin Murray BBC 

So let’s talk about the other story today which is in China. China is a law unto themselves. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. I just mean, you know, and reading what happens at climate change conferences, they say, “this is the way we’re going to do it.” And it’s that simple.

I remember in recent years, they said two things: the first was that a lot of this damage to the planet was done by an industrial revolution that they didn’t have, so they are going to continue to dig coal for longer than us. But at the same time, China said they will make big strides forward in on wind and solar, in the coming years. They were always honest about digging more coal, and they pledged to forge ahead on wind and solar. It looks like they are they are doing both of those things.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE

Let us herald the fact that there is growth in wind and solar in China and that is a fantastic thing. It is going to help and they should be encouraged to do even more. Just to temper our enthusiasm for what is going on, is that they are still building coal fired power stations. And it’s something like one every two weeks that is being commissioned and put into operation. That is incredible in terms of, worldwide, the number of coal fired power plants coming online.

Now, the claim is that many of those coal fired power stations are being brought on in order to basically help the Chinese economy when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining enough. In other words, to cope with the intermittency that is an intrinsic feature of some of these renewable power options.

The problem is, if you go and build redundancy into a system, therefore you have got coal fired power plants, the question is, are they only going to be used when the wind isn’t blowing? Or are they going to get used, as we would in the UK, more into the base power, because that’s the way that those systems are best operated. In which case, we’ve now got back to the situation where we have still got a lot of carbon being emitted. 

There are other ways of addressing energy storage and intermittency, such as looking at other energy storage options, so that you can actually accommodate the intermittency, which is the intrinsic feature of some of these renewable power stations,

Colin Murray BBC 

they did say that look, we are going to mined coal, and we’re going to mine it enthusiastically. We are going to pivot significantly, though, towards the end of this century. I suppose we will just have to see how that transpires.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE

The problem is, if you invest in an asset, such as a coal fired power station, the way that the economics works for lots of these systems is that it is not something you are going to build and then only plan to run for 10 years. You build and plan to run for many, many decades. We have got to get to net zero, as a world, by something like 2050.

Otherwise, the temperatures that we’re going to be looking at are going to be very, very challenging for life as we know it on the planet to be able to survive. I mean, it’s not that the planet will be fine. It’s the life on it that might actually find things rather more difficult. So building more coal fired power stations is a problem for mankind.

Colin Murray BBC 

That is such a good point to make, because we often hear the phrase the end of the world, the end of us, the world has still been here.

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE 

It won’t really be the end of us. But there’ll be lots of ecosystems and other aspects of life on Earth as we know it, that are going to be dramatically changed. It will affect humans for sure. If we think we’ve got a migration problem right now, with climate change, it is quite possible that we are going to see mass migration in an order of magnitude, maybe even two orders of magnitude greater than the problem we have got right now.

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