Written Evidence from the Sussex Energy Group (University of Sussex) (DHH0077)

About the authors

This submission has been prepared by the following members of the Sussex Energy Group (SEG)[1] at the University of Sussex:

- Dr Donal Brown (https://profiles.sussex.ac.uk/p283676-donal-brown)

- Ed Dearnley (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/people/lists/person/20600)

- Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle (https://profiles.sussex.ac.uk/p214171-max-lacey-barnacle)

- Dr Mari Martiskainen (https://profiles.sussex.ac.uk/p197918-mari-martiskainen)

- Bryony Parrish

- Prof Benjamin Sovacool (https://profiles.sussex.ac.uk/p373957-benjamin-sovacool)

SEG aims to understand and foster transitions towards sustainable, low carbon energy systems. We undertake academically rigorous, interdisciplinary and world-leading research that is relevant to contemporary policy challenges.

  1. Executive summary





  1. What has been the impact of past and current policies for low carbon heat, and what lessons can be learnt, including examples from devolved administrations and international comparators?


1.1.   Our 2020 paper “Hot transformations: Governing rapid and deep household heating transitions in China, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom”[2] examined features of heat (fossil and renewable) transitions in China, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most positive point from this research is that deep or wide-reaching, transitions in heat are indeed possible. Between our four case studies, 100 million households, and approximately 310 million people, changed how they received their heat and hot water. However, heat transitions have taken some time to complete; the bulk of the transitions in our case studies took 18–35 years to occur. A similar timeframe for a UK low carbon heat transition may be insufficient to reach the UK’s net zero goal.


1.2.   Our UK case study focused on the transition to natural gas for domestic heating and hot water. In the 1960s and 70s the UK converted 40 million appliances and 14 million homes (almost half of all homes at that time) to run on natural gas from the North Sea, rather than town gas. The majority of these conversions happen over a 10-year period. By 1977, 92% of the UK population had a gas grid connection (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Installation of Natural Gas Central Heating Systems in the UK (cumulative, thousands)


1.3.   A key element seen in all four case studies was a central state willing to coordinate and steer programs and policies. The state was also willing to intervene and invest in purposive action that facilitated the roles of industry groups, civil society actors and households themselves. Such a polycentric design ensures the beneficial involvement of multiple actors that can facilitate feedback, develop standards, promote agreements, align incentives, and otherwise shape each heating transition. The role of the state represented the common thread in four heat transitions where action was otherwise diverse, reflecting the national contexts and chosen technologies:


1.4.   Energy efficiency has a crucial role as an enabling technology in rapid heat transformations. Efficiency measures were a feature of all of the more recent heat transitions we studied. (we expand on this in section 4.3). 


  1. What key policies, priorities and timelines should be included in the Government’s forthcoming ‘Buildings and Heat Strategy’ to ensure that the UK is on track to deliver Net Zero? What are the most urgent decisions and actions that need to be taken over the course of this Parliament (by 2024)?


3.1.   Legislation is necessary to show commitment and leadership. There are important and necessary roles for Government in any large-scale heat transition, even if the mechanisms are market-based. Government initiative, via legislation amongst other routes, will signal to the private sector that financial investment in energy efficiency is a long-term Government priority.[3] Private sector investment in heat transitions is currently limited, as it is seen as unattractive and homeowners are believed to be reluctant to move away from natural gas heating systems. Guarantees on fuel bill savings will help attract owner-occupiers and build trust, while new financial mechanisms will attract investors.


3.2.   Parallels can be drawn with the current position for domestic energy efficiency, where targets are insufficient, vague and contain too many get out clauses. The Scottish Government have shown how legislated targets can be implemented via the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019[4].


  1. Which technologies are the most viable to deliver the decarbonisation of heating, and what would be the most appropriate mix of technologies across the UK?


4.1.   Our research[5] suggests that an outcome-based (technology-neutral) decarbonisation obligation approach for the heat sector is desirable. Such an approach would consider which types of homes and consumers may be best suited for particular low carbon technologies, and promote the emergence of new business propositions (e.g. energy as a service) that presents significant potential to enable the transition to low carbon heating solutions. Such an approach does not preclude the strong role of the state we discuss above in section 2.1, but instead means that state avoids picking a single ‘winning’ technology that can stifle the creation of attractive, consumer-friendly innovations.


4.2.   This suggestion reflects that fact that Governments are arguably making more headway in transport than they are on heating. It is intriguing to contrast the policy approaches in the two areas. With transport, policymakers are banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars. The automotive sector is responding by designing attractive low carbon vehicles for consumers. By contrast, with domestic heating, policymakers are often introducing different measures to try to increase energy efficiency and drive the uptake of low carbon heating systems. These policies usually focus on minimising cost. Carmakers have learnt what consumers want from vehicles and offer a range of vehicles to suit, including premium vehicles at very high prices that are leading the way (e.g. Tesla). The heating industry in contrast is responding to government policy by designing whatever policies encourage. If the heating industry was set a technology neutral target, as the automotive sector has been, then it might develop a range of low carbon heating solutions to meet the broad range of needs consumers seem to have for heat in their homes.


4.3.   Energy efficiency has a key role to play in a heat transition for three key reasons. The first is that it can significantly reduce the size of the necessary low carbon heat deployment. Our research[6] found that cost-effective investments to 2035 could save around one quarter of the energy currently used in UK homes, giving an average saving of £270 per household per year. For context, this saving is approximately equivalent to the output of six nuclear power stations the size of Hinkley Point C. Using Treasury guidance for policy appraisal, this investment in energy efficiency has an estimated net present value of £7.5 billion.


4.4.   Secondly, some low carbon heating technologies become ineffective in less efficient buildings. For example, heat pumps may work inefficiently and/or need considerable modifications to the existing heating system to work effectively (for example, larger radiators and/or an oversized heat pump). Installing these technologies without addressing energy efficiency can damage the technology’s reputation by presenting users with a heating system that compares poorly with the one they had before, i.e. higher heating costs and/or the need to use supplemental heating.


4.5.   Finally, highly energy efficient homes are an enabler for some low carbon heat technologies. In particular, highly efficient homes open the door for flexible demand technologies that smooth peaks in energy demand. For example, highly efficient homes can go several hours without heat input whilst still maintaining a comfortable thermal environment. By contrast, inefficient homes require timely heat inputs to maintain a consistent temperature. Technologies such as heat stores also become far more feasible if the heat requirement of a building is reduced to as low a level as possible[7].



  1. What are the barriers to scaling up low carbon heating technologies? What is needed to overcome these barriers?


5.1.   Barriers to scaling up often focus on technology uptake. While this is of course crucial, unintended use and learning about new technologies can also prevent the realisation of the benefits expected from the new technologies being deployed. Our recent research[8] explored user learning about smart hybrid heat pumps in the FREEDOM Project trial, finding that:


5.2.   Whilst these findings are specific to hybrid heat pumps, they highlight the challenge to all new heating technologies that provide a different user experience to more established systems (such as gas central heating). Policy attention to learning and use, as well as the uptake of new technologies, could influence these outcomes. This could benefit from improved information provision, including providing non-technical verbal, rather than written, information and tailoring this to users’ needs. This could be supported by asking households how they use heat alongside technical installation surveys, and routinely providing follow-up advice about emerging issues that were not anticipated during installation.


  1. How can the costs of decarbonising heat be distributed fairly across consumers, taxpayers, business and government, taking account of the fuel poor and communities affected by the transition? What is the impact of the existing distribution of environmental levies across electricity, gas and fuel bills on drivers for switching to low carbon heating, and should this distribution be reviewed?


6.1.   Decarbonising heat may involve significant additional costs, both for installation of low carbon technologies and (in some cases) higher ongoing fuel costs. If these costs are passed on to consumers as a proportion of energy costs, low-income households will face a disproportionate burden. This could spark a new wave of fuel poverty caused by the decarbonisation of heat. For this reason, the cost of incentives for low carbon heat should be funded though general taxation rather than levies on fuel bills. Technologies with high capital costs but low running costs (for example, solar thermal) should be targeted at the homes of the fuel poor, with appropriate financial assistance. Ensuring homes meet high standards of energy efficiency will also minimise the impacts of any additional costs.



  1. What incentives and regulatory measures should be employed to encourage and ensure households take up low carbon heat, and how will these need to vary for different household types?


7.1.   Households, and the individuals in them, vary drastically in their heating needs and preferences. This needs to be considered in the technologies incentivised, and in the design of incentives and regulatory measures. People often do not know what heating services they want or value - they figure it out as they go. It becomes a process of their lived experience, entrenched in their identity or energy biography. This suggests we need to rely more on revealed preferences rather than stated preferences. This also means examining heating preferences simultaneously across space (different rooms), time (living) and phenomenology (experience).


7.2.   We investigated heating preferences via a ‘living lab’ in our paper Humanizing heat as a service: Cost, creature comforts and the diversity of smart heating practices in the United Kingdom[9]. The paper focused on smart heating controls, but the results are generalisable to heat in general. In the paper we identified seven distinct energy phenomenologies (see Figure 2). At first glance some of these may seem trivial or even amusing, yet they illustrate the complex and perhaps unexpected relationship that households have with heat.

Figure 2 The seven phenomenological uses of smart heating controls             

7.3.   Using our living lab data, we profiled different UK heating segments and differentiated them according to the following categories:


7.4.   Our findings here illustrate the challenge of meeting different households’ heating needs – a technology that meets the needs and desires of one group may not find favour with another. A key finding is that no single heating profile dominates the sample (see Figure 3), with the top two, On-off Switchers and Steady and Savvy, reflecting only 28% and 24% of households respectively. Across the profiles, most homes request between 4-7 temperatures across their home, though a few homes requested only 1-2 different temperatures.



Figure 3 Six heating patterns and profiles with the preferred temperature for smart homes in the Living Laboratory





  1. What action is required to ensure that households are engaged, informed, supported and protected during the transition to low carbon heat, including measures to minimise disruption in homes and to maintain consumer choice?


8.1.   Household inertia is one of the most significant obstacles to a low carbon heat transition. Households are generally satisfied with their current heating system and lack knowledge of low carbon alternatives. Examples of this include:


8.2.   Independent intermediaries[13] hold many of the answers here - with local knowledge they can package together tailored advice, trusted installers and financing options. There are numerous examples of successful intermediaries, including those established or endorsed by local authorities. The Government should examine how they can support these intermediaries at a local level, rather than rely on centralised provision of advice.


8.3.   An example of how not to overcome this inertia is the current Green Homes Grant Scheme. Whilst attractive grants are on offer, advice is limited and centralised through the Government’s Simple Energy Advice programme. The advice provided is developed through self-reported questionnaires and Energy Performance Certificates (which are often flawed in the data they contain). Having received advice, households are left to identify and contract installers. With the financial benefits on offer in many cases marginal, we expect many would-be grant recipients to disengage during this process. 


8.4.   Local advice would also be beneficial to support users’ learning about new technologies (see section 4). Some installers already take on this role to an extent, and existing certification schemes could be modified to include training in these skills. However, support for local intermediaries and peer-to-peer learning could also be helpful.

  1. Where should responsibility lie for the governance, coordination and delivery of low carbon heating? What will these organisations need in order to deliver such responsibilities?


9.1.   Similar to the Green Homes Grant scheme, a robust system of accreditation must be in place, in which Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) and Trustmark approved providers are the key organisations responsible for the delivery and installation of low carbon heating technologies and measures. This is to minimise the risk of exploitative and inexperienced providers taking advantage of new low carbon heating markets/ incentives/ government schemes and targeting potentially vulnerable consumers. Unlike the Green Homes Grant scheme, which is largely self-managed and without enough clarity and guidance for homeowners (as outlined above in 7.3), much clearer information needs to be provided.


9.2.   Central, devolved and local government must therefore ensure that only MCS and Trustmark accredited providers engage in the delivery side of technology deployment, ensuring proper governance of this process by approving the release of funding for these providers only. As mentioned above (7.1), key intermediary organisations - for example the Energy Saving Trust, Carbon Trust and Centre for Sustainable Energy - could play a useful role in the coordination of delivery by helping Government match accredited/approved providers with UK communities and buildings that would benefit most from low carbon heating technologies. These include hard to treat houses/buildings and hard to reach communities in areas high in deprivation. This would ensure both carbon reductions and social equity in the rapid acceleration of the decarbonisation of heat in homes.


November 2020

[1] See http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/research/themes/sussexenergygroup

[2] Sovacool, B.K. and Martiskainen, M. (2020). “Hot transformations: Governing rapid and deep household heating transitions in China, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom”, Energy Policy

[3] Bergman, N., Foxon, T. (2020). Reorienting Finance Towards Energy Efficiency in the UK: the case of UK housing. Energy Research & Social Science

[4] https://beta.parliament.scot/bills/fuel-poverty-scotland-bill

[5] Sovacool, B.K, Osborn, J., Martiskainen, M., Lipson, M. (2020). Testing smarter control and feedback with users: Time, temperature and space in household heating preferences and practices in a Living Laboratory, Global Environmental Change.

[6] Unlocking Britain’s First Fuel: The potential for energy savings in UK housing’

[7] ‘Heating without the hot air: Principles for smart heat electrification’

[8] Parrish, B, Hielschera, S, Foxon, T.(2021), Consumers or users? The impact of user learning about smart hybrid heat pumps on policy trajectories for heat decarbonisation”, Energy Policy

[9] Sovacool, B.K, Osborn, J., Martiskainen, M., Anaam, A, Lipson, M. (2020) “Humanizing heat as a service: Cost, creature comforts and the diversity of smart heating practices in the United Kingdom” of smart heating controls in the United Kingdom, Energy & Climate Change

[10] Survey across 5 European countries, including the UK. Published in Sovacool, B.K., Cabeza, L.F., Pisello, A.L., Fronzetti Colladon, A., Madani Larijani, H.,   Dawoud, B., Martiskainen, M. (2020). The demographics and geography of decarbonizing household heat: Reviewing low-carbon heating purposes, preferences, and practices in five European countries. Paper under review. 

[11] Sovacool, B.K., Blyth, P.L. (2015) “Energy and Environmental Attitudes in the Green State of Denmark: Implications for Energy Democracy, Low Carbon Transitions, and Energy Literacy,” Environmental Science & Policy

[12] Sovacool, B.K. (2016) “Differing Cultures of Energy Security: An International Comparison of Public Perceptions,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews

[13] Martiskainen, M. and Kivimaa, P. (2018).Creating innovative zero carbon homes in the United Kingdom — Intermediaries and champions in building projects. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.