Fixing our heat and transport to meet renewable targets

Posted in: Eco-friendly

Posted on: 22.07.2016

In its 2009 National Action Plan for renewable energy, the UK government set out aims for 30% of electricity demand, 12% of heat demand and 10% of transport demand to be met with renewable sources by 2020.

While it looks likely that the electricity target will be hit, progress on heat (currently at 4.8%) and transport (which recently fell back to 4.1%) remains slow.

Increasing both of these percentages won’t be easy but there are several opportunities that could really help change that.


Zero carbon homes

Over 70% of the UK’s heat generation is for use in our homes. While the UK has excellent gas-grid connectivity and some of the lowest domestic gas prices, many houses are poorly built and insulated, ranking amongst some of the worst in Europe. This makes efficient heating technologies such as low-temperature heat pumps and underfloor heating ineffective.

For homeowners, replacing a heating system is costly. Improving the energy efficiency of a property, for example through loft insulation or triple glazing, could quickly increase renewables’ contribution to heat generation, simply by reducing the total demand.

It’s important to build new properties to the best possible standards, which is why the government’s decision to scrap its Zero Carbon Homes policy was hugely disappointing. Whilst insulating existing homes helps, it does seem that the UK will be condemned to another generation of poorly insulated homes.

Heat pumps

Using a decarbonised electricity supply to heat homes is also essential. The infrastructure is already in place meaning a national switch to electric heating would be relatively simple.

One of the most effective ways of using electrical heating is through heat pumps, which are highly efficient and capable of producing much more power than conventional electrical heating.

Around 1.6 million gas boilers are replaced each year in the UK, presenting an excellent opportunity to quickly deploy heat pumps, in those areas not covered by gas. But costs remain high and public awareness remains low, with just 33% reporting to have heard of them. And while the installation of heat pumps is encouraged by the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), deployment under the scheme has been slow.

The RHI originally set out to deliver 63TWh of renewable heat by 2020 while the latest proposals for a ‘reformed scheme’ suggest just 24TWh will be achieved. Better information programmes about heat pumps and a continued commitment are key if we are to see more deployed.

Hydrogen – the fuel of our future

Using electrolysis to turn water into hydrogen, this fuel can be produced whenever needed and, if it’s made using renewable power, not only is it zero-carbon, it could contribute to renewable heat targets through direct injection into the gas grid.

Today’s current maximum limit for hydrogen in the UK’s gas grid sits at just 0.1%. Meanwhile Germany is at 10% with the rest of Europe standing at around 5%.

With the international demand for hydrogen power increasing, companies who manufacture fuel cells here in the UK, have recommended that the UK’s limit should be increased to 3%.  

Using the gas grid also offers a storage option that the electricity grid does not, so there are opportunities to ensure that if renewables are producing power in excess of demand, then this can be transferred into the gas grid providing a positive solution to our renewable heat troubles.


The transport story has a number of parallels with heat. And as with heat, the use of renewable energy for public and private transport can be increased through biofuels or electrification.


Biofuels already make up 5% of the petrol we use in the UK (E5 fuel). All petrol vehicles have been able to run using E5 very successfully for many years. But modern petrol engines can run on up to 10% bioethanol, without the need for any vehicle modifications.

The transition to E10 fuel has been part of the EU framework and automotive plans for decades. The only sticking point is that about 9% of petrol vehicles in the UK cannot burn E10 due to their age. While there would be a need to work around the affected vehicles, this shift could play a big part in meeting our 2020 targets.  


Biofuels cannot realistically go beyond the E10 without significant importing of biofuels, so electrification of transport will also be needed. 

Electrifying road transport will of course be more difficult but it has the practical advantage that the infrastructure is already in place. Homes, businesses, petrol stations and service stations already have an electricity supply and there are now over 10,000 dedicated electric vehicle charging points in the UK.

However, Government policy in this area is inconsistent. The purchase of electric vehicles is incentivised with a grant of up to £4,500 but recent changes to vehicle road tax removed allowances for many low-emission hybrids and plug-in vehicles.  Efficient cars will soon pay the same road tax as the most carbon intensive.

We need a holistic approach to EV’s if we are going to get the best out of them, including a consistent approach to tax, infrastructure and incentives.  With these in place and great products like Tesla’s already out there, this could be a significant part of the market. 

Fuel from hydrogen

Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are set to form another part of the next generation of emission-free transport. The way we get the petrol and diesel for our cars is something we’re all familiar with: oil is extracted from the ground, processed and shipped to forecourts ready for us to use. But with hydrogen it takes just two ingredients: electricity and water.

Good Energy recently announced plans to work with British firm ITM Power, who are producing hydrogen fuel which can fill the tank of a fuel cell car in just three minutes and give a range of 300 miles. By working with Good Energy, ITM Power will be producing truly zero-carbon fuel by using our 100% renewable electricity in the manufacturing process.

There are expected to be 70 UK hydrogen refuelling stations by 2020. Along with the rise in electric vehicles and hybrids, hydrogen is set to play a major role in decarbonising our transport system.

Time to refocus

The realities of increasing renewable energy in the heat and transport sectors mean electrification with a renewable electricity supply will be essential. The infrastructure is in place, the technology exists but the missing ingredient is the will to deliver it on a mass scale.

We have a real opportunity to take advantage of a whole system approach, across transport, heat and electricity networks.

New thinking, plus a review of policies to ensure that momentum behind renewables is maintained means that delivering on all these targets could become a reality.  

Originally published on BusinessGreen

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