SEA report calls for technology-agnostic approach to heat and building policy

The Sustainable Energy Association (SEA) and its partners have called on the UK government to ensure its policy on transitioning buildings to net zero, including heating systems and smart controls, reflects a diverse range of low-carbon technologies. 

In a new report published last month, the SEA argues that if the country is to successfully transition to net zero, the government’s policies relating to buildings "need to be more data driven, evidence led, outcomes focused and technology agnostic". 

The Technology Agnostic Approach into Heat and Building Policy report also provides pointers on how the government’s current approach could be improved by highlighting existing UK examples, as well as international case studies, to foster this approach, rather than rely on a small number of options. 

The report defines a technology-agnostic approach as one where there is a "requirement for policy to preserve optionality to deliver the best technologies for the right outcomes in order to decarbonise heat in buildings". 

The SEA and its key partner organisations welcome the government’s renewed 2030 ambition to reduce energy consumption by 15%, as demonstrated by its commitment to invest £6 billion and set up the Energy Efficiency Taskforce to assist with reducing energy demand. 

In the report’s foreword, SEA President Lord Best notes that the emphasis on a technology-agnostic approach chimes with the government-commissioned report Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net-Zero, which provides a clear assessment on how net-zero policy can go faster and further and how it can deliver pro-business, economy-wide growth. 

However, he added that to achieve this, "it will be necessary to consider a wider diversity of technologies, with the need for clarity and long-term certainty for industry".

The report highlights a wide range of technologies that are needed for decarbonising  heat ranging from electrified solutions such as all types of heat pumps, direct electric heating, infrared heating, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, solar PV, and electric battery storage, to smart thermal storage, smart controls, solar thermal systems and low-carbon fuels. 

"This broader, more flexible approach needs to combine with giving the industry more long-term certainty, including clear dates for phasing out fossil fuel boilers, better measurement and recording of information on building performances, and more," noted Lord Best.

The new report, which is supported by a diverse range of partners, including the Building Research Establishment, the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technologies and Solar Energy UK, outlines a series of benefits that can be achieved by pursuing a technology agnostic approach (see below).

As the report explains, the UK’s building stock is very diverse, which means that solutions to decarbonise heat in buildings need to be considered on their own individual basis rather than pursuing a blanket policy. 

It adds that the antiquated nature of the building stock means the buildings are thermally inefficient and people who live and work in them face "cold, expensive and unhealthy indoor environments". The report estimates the societal costs could be around £18.5 billion per year.

"This is an opportunity for capitalising on the most favourable outcomes for the nation and getting it right from the outset," the report noted.

"These outcomes are chiefly guided by the three main drivers of reducing cost, abating carbon and enhancing health and wellbeing."

The report argues that a technology-agnostic approach delivers policies that support both vulnerable consumers as well as businesses, while also decarbonising by applying low-carbon technologies more appropriately after considering the end user’s circumstances, requirements and desired outcomes. 

"This approach also puts more emphasis on first establishing what these desired outcomes are for the circumstance, the particularities of an individual situation or building and the priorities of the consumer or business," said the report.

"Once this baseline has been covered, the approach necessitates that the best mix of technologies are then applied and in the right order, specifically targeting these outcomes."

The SEA report notes that most existing policies apply a top-down approach to specifying technologies whereas a technology-agnostic approach is the opposite. 

"All buildings, either existing or new build, will significantly benefit from tailored measure selections to match the building at a property level," according to the report. 

Commenting on the publication, Jade Lewis, SEA’s CEO, said: ‘The SEA is steadfast in its commitments to deliver living and working space fit for future generations. 

"To help us realise this vision, government policy for heat and buildings needs to be long term and joined-up, taking a fabric-first, holistic and technology-agnostic approach. This report lays the foundations as to why these policies should take into consideration a wider range of technologies, so that we can provide homes and buildings with the best solutions for net zero."

Benefits of a technology-agnostic approach 

1. Focusing on lowering cost and carbon emissions, and enhancing wellbeing, while applying the most appropriate measures to a building to achieve this, will achieve net zero the soonest and with the best outcomes. To offer an example, this approach will avoid the financial and carbon costs associated with incorrectly specifying measures in existing or new buildings, which will have to be removed/re-specified in the future.

2. More technologically agnostic policies will provide a huge benefit for installing flexible and smart technologies in buildings that necessitate buildings and an energy grid of the future. Unlocking net zero will fall heavily on using low-/zero-carbon energy in response to demand, price, and carbon intensity, alongside shifting consumption or generation in time or location. The solutions that will enable smart and flexible energy systems in buildings are well deployed under a more technologically agnostic policy framework as these outcomes are of principal importance for attaining net zero, giving consumers and businesses ownership of their energy, and offering the best value, lowest carbon energy.

3. Consumer education and engagement in the transition to net zero will benefit by taking a more appropriate approach to the way low-carbon technologies are deployed. This is partly because this approach puts a greater onus on the rollout of quality, tailored consumer advice that captures consumer interests and engages them in the transition. With the installation of measures more suited to the individual and the situation, the result will be more likely to breed confidence and trust in consumers. This will lead to fewer instances of distress purchases; higher opinions and better buy-in of low-carbon technologies and their role in buildings; and a greater potential for consumers and businesses to invest in low-carbon technologies and undertake preparatory works and installations before they are made necessary by a heating system failure.

4. Technology-agnostic policies will reap the benefits of delivering low-carbon technologies most appropriately through local, regional and national planning. Local delivery and planning are the most effective ways to deploy the most appropriate technologies, as individual areas are better aware of their plans for decarbonising to net-zero carbon emissions, their regional assets, and consumer and business requirements. As a result, it will likely best capture the necessary skills required to install and drive the net-zero transition. It focuses on local skills, where they will be required the most and in what volume; alongside how best to attract new talent and up- and re-skill existing trades.

5. This approach is best suited for: growing a more holistic manufacturing base and service offering; creating a progressive industry for unlocking innovative measures and solutions; and stronger, more resilient supply chains for delivering low-carbon technologies for the transition to net zero. This is beneficial for diversifying the technology offering to consumers and businesses, spreading the risk of delivery or material/componentry shortages across a wider array of varied solutions. It also has the benefit of boosting the UK’s potential to grow its economy by exporting low-carbon products and services for decarbonising buildings to a global market of decarbonising economies. Additionally, there are wider benefits for energy security and independence. As the market for a diverse offering of low-carbon technologies and fuel vectors grows, so does individual ownership and generation of energy, and protection from geopolitical turbulence.

Source: The Technology Agnostic Approach into Heat and Building Policy report’s conclusion.




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