Is electric the future-proof option for sustainable heating in UK buildings?

Is electric the future-proof option for sustainable heating in UK buildings?

The UK is making progress in decarbonising its economy. In 2022 total emissions fell by 3.4%, and the nation is currently only 19% short of the 2030 target of a 68% reduction of 1990 levels. To achieve the UK’s 2050 net zero obligation, large parts of the economy still require further decarbonisation, especially commercial and domestic heating. According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC) parliamentary report, half of current heat demand must be low carbon by 2035 to reach the 2050 target.

Like many sectors, the transition to low carbon is happening through electrification. Gas boilers are already being phased out, and in 2025 the Future Homes Standard will come into force, effectively shutting them out of new build homes. This will make low carbon, sustainable heating a necessity for installers. Electric heating is a future-proof, low carbon solution that will survive the further significant changes in energy mix, market reform, and greater grid flexibility that are bound to come.

Energy mix and market reforms demand future-proof electric heating

More renewable energy is coming online across the UK. In 2022 40% of electricity was produced from renewable sources. And in May 2022, 73% of the grid’s power came from renewables. This means the overall share of electric energy in the UK is becoming greener. As this trend continues, commercial and residential heating must be prepared to adopt more electric heating.

The increase of renewables in the energy mix isn’t the only significant change that will drive the transition to low carbon electric heating methods. The UK government announced and concluded its Review of Electricity Market Arrangements (REMA) last year. The review, touted as the “biggest electricity market reform in a generation,” aims to enhance energy security and cut electricity costs as the UK moves to a cleaner energy system.

One of the biggest consequences of the review will be the decoupling of the gas and electricity markets. Currently, the highest gas prices determine the wholesale price of electricity. The consequence is much higher electricity prices, including renewable electricity, which should be significantly cheaper.

When the decoupling reforms are enacted, the price of residential and commercial electricity should drop significantly, especially as the renewables mix continues to increase past 40%. This would make electrical heating one of the least carbon intensive forms of heating, as well as the least expensive. Making the most of this by deploying electrical heating is important to ensuring future-proof heating in commercial and residential buildings.

Direct electric is best fit for a more flexible grid and the varied UK building stock

Future-proofing also requires the right product for the right property. Heat pumps and direct electric are the two most popular forms of low carbon electric heating and the UK’s varied building stock requires both. New homes built after 2025 and spacious, two-storey buildings are suitable for heat pump installation. However, large swathes of the UK building stock are made up of smaller, older, and multi-storey buildings where heat pump installation is not practical. And as former commercial buildings are transformed into residential flats in the wake of the shift to hybrid work, retrofitting increasingly involves smaller heating solutions for multi-storey properties. Research carried out by electrical heating company, ThermoSphere, shows 54% of construction professionals reported that the best low carbon heating solution for smaller homes, apartments, and multi-storey buildings is direct electric heating because it does not require external equipment and has a minimal footprint.

The potential REMA reforms will also lead to “increases [in] the participation of low carbon flexibility technologies”, including more electricity storage and wider use of demand side response (DSR). UK homes have recently experienced this with the limited roll out of the National Grid ESO Demand Flexibility Scheme, a residential DSR technology ending in March 2023. As demand side activity increases, giving domestic and commercial properties the ability to receive financial rewards for temporarily reducing their electricity consumption, buildings with low carbon electric heating have the potential to receive the most benefit as they have the most capacity to shut off.

In addition, because DSR requires reducing consumption by turning off electrical systems, buildings with direct electric heating can manage this with greater control as direct electric heating does not operate on a central heating system, unlike gas or air-to-water or ground-source heat pumps. This allows for more localised, zone-specific heating. When turning off is required, buildings that don’t use centralised heating systems can choose to shut down specific areas and keep others heated. What’s more, with new underfloor heating products, on average it only takes approximately 20-30 minutes to heat a room, meaning temperature and comfort levels can be quickly restored after a shut off.

As the UK continues to further electrify in order to decarbonise, electric residential and commercial heating will be able to endure future changes in energy mixes and market reform. Smaller, older, and multi-storey buildings will also benefit from direct electric heating as the grid becomes more flexible.

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