Net zero policy could increase reliance on secondary heating

The Impact of secondary heating systems is being overlooked in net zero policy, warns OFTEC.

OFTEC warns of 'unintended consequences' to net zero policy.

The government’s ambition to transition homes from fossil fuel boilers onto heat pumps could lead to an increased reliance on secondary heating systems, in particular solid fuel appliances, which risks undermining the UK’s air quality objectives and could also hinder the UK’s net zero ambitions.

That’s the message from OFTEC, which has raised concerns the government has overlooked the potential unintended consequences of off-grid homes having to switch their primary heating system to a low carbon solution which is not suited to their home.

The government has set out proposals for the UK’s 1.7 million oil heated homes to transition to a heat pump by banning the installation of fossil fuel heating systems in the home from 2035. These homes, which are often older and less well insulated, can pose difficult challenges for successful heat pump installations.

A policy own goal

OFTEC has warned that if owners then find the electricity running costs for their heat pump are too high, or their homes are not heated to comfortable temperatures, they may increase usage of other appliances such as wood burning stoves which can be damaging to the environment.

There are already an estimated 1.5 million wood burning stoves in the UK with sales increasing by 67% in the last three months of 2022. Wood burners are sometimes seen as a luxury item or lifestyle choice. However, for many off-grid households, they are often seen as an essential back up or secondary heating system.

Their increased popularity has significant environmental consequences. Recently published figures reveal 22% of particulate pollution is produced by burning wood compared to 18% from roads, and their particulate and carbon emissions are far higher than from oil or gas boilers.

The government has already restricted the types of fuels which can be burnt, and defined which stoves must be used in smoke control areas, but when it comes to further plans to limit or ban their use, the picture is less clear.

A critical choice

OFTEC is calling on the government to give households a choice of renewable heating solutions which are practical and affordable, whether it’s a heat pump or a renewable liquid fuel. This will make it easier to ensure they get the best possible solution for their home and reduces the likelihood they will be forced to rely more on their secondary heating system.

Malcolm Farrow, from OFTEC, commented: “With all the focus on transitioning our primary heating to low carbon alternatives, it’s critical that the right technology is installed in the right home to avoid the risk of unintended consequences – such as increasing the use of wood-burning stoves.

“There are already over a million solid fuel appliances in homes up and down the country, particularly in off-grid properties, and they are deservedly popular. However, we don’t want to see their use increase due to problems following a conversion to low carbon heating. That’s why heat policy must take a holistic approach and avoid just focussing on the technical delivery, but also consider the real-world implications in the home.

“If we aren’t careful, we risk solving one problem and creating another. It’s possible we could see a scenario emerge where homes transition their fossil fuel boilers to a technology, such as a heat pump, but then dramatically increase their usage of their wood burning stove. This would be counterproductive to plans to improve air quality and carbon reduction – but a likely scenario in homes with less than perfect insulation and high heat demand, which is the norm in older rural properties.

“Giving off-grid properties a choice of renewable heating solutions isn’t just about fairness, it’s being pragmatic and recognising the practical reality of the off-grid sector. If we want to succeed in our drive to net zero, consumers need to be kept on side.”