Our Policy Advisor, Ben Copson, launched our recent Technology Agnostic Event, discussing the context for technology agnosticism in the current government and political landscape.
Read Ben’s speech:
I think it is of no surprise to anybody in this room that we are in strange and tough times. The saga of events that have occurred over the last few years—BREXIT, COVID, the war in Ukraine, and the resulting crises and recession—have all had profound impacts on our industry; energy security is at massive risk; energy bills at eyewatering levels, with multiple tens of billions of pounds spent on capping and paying them off; the cost of living at highs not seen for decades; and our journey towards Net Zero in jeopardy. We have reached a critical stage. The actions that we take now must steer us both away from the dangers and cost that these crises are posing and towards a future that achieves net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. No easy feat, and it will require wholesale change to the way our entire society operates, but not least in how we tackle the topic of decarbonising heat and buildings.
Premise for Work:
The source of a third of all UK emissions are from buildings, 80% of that is generated from heating them. This is a colossal volume of carbon emissions that we have to abate. And we have to make sure we do it in a way that is not only fair for everyone, but that achieves the right outcomes, increases our energy independence and resilience to future energy crises, and, crucially, creates living and working spaces that are fit for future generations.
And for many years now, the SEA’s vision has been just that. One of our modus operandi, is through advocating a fabric-first and whole-house approach. Decarbonising buildings starts with the fabric, and this should always be prioritised as the first port of call. Upgrading the energy efficiencies of buildings and reducing energy demands is the single-most impactful solution we can employ to remediate the energy crisis on both the supply and consumer side. Whilst hugely contributing to Net Zero as well—far greater action must be taken by the Government on energy efficiency.
However, alongside maximising the fabric efficiency of buildings, other elements within then should then be considered, such as ventilation, heating solutions, microgeneration, and smart controls. These can then be planned for and implemented across time, ensuring measures work in conjunction with one another, to deliver Net Zero and right outcomes—otherwise a whole-house approach.
And to complete this methodology, a technology agnostic approach should also be taken to augment and support fabric-first and whole-house construction or upgrade. This approach follows that we must be more open to what technologies will be most applicable for decarbonising heat in any given building that is contingent on achieving the best outcomes. These outcomes can be myriad, but, principally, should align with, 1. getting to Net Zero, 2. considerations for cost (in all senses), and 3. enhancing the health of the indoor environment and wellbeing of those living and working within them.
We know that in order to get to Net-Zero 2050, and build out of COVID, the energy crisis, and the recession, we will have to massively scale, as a matter of urgency and great priority, the demand, markets, and supply chains for these low-carbon technologies. And this should not be a highly selective or exclusive process, as, to the best of our current understanding, come 2050, the mixture and scales of these individual technologies are unknown to us. The CCC’s carbon budgets, comprehensive though they are, model several dramatically varying scenarios on the proportions of low-carbon technologies for decarbonising heat.
We don’t know which scenario will predict our future. And we can’t know the degree to which heat decarbonisation will be tackled by a single measure, simply due to the fact that our buildings, domestic, non-domestic, new build and existing, are, unequivocally, unique, and have equally as unique requirements and outcomes that need to be satisfied to ready them for a net-zero future. These could be particular to their construction, situation, local energy infrastructure, local environment, inhabitants, and much more.
The risk, which a technology appropriate approach seeks to avoid, is the journey we may be embarking on now with a select few technologies, like heat pumps—and possibly hydrogen. If we pigeon-hole ourselves into supporting one technology far and above all others, we risk placing all of our eggs into one basket and depending solely on the successes of a single technology, which may work better in combination with other solutions and may not suit every use case. Plus, we risk seriously marginalising the plethora of other low-carbon technologies that will play a role, great or slight, in getting us to Net Zero and achieving the best outcomes, and these can’t be ignored. Further down the line, and when it may come to re-calling on these other technologies for support, those markets may have diminished and receded, when, with support for their inclusion now, we can put ourselves in far better stead for the challenge of decarbonising heat in buildings than we may be setting ourselves up for now.
I hope this doesn’t come across as an anti-heat pump, or anti-any low-carbon technology position, as the vitality and significance of heat pump technologies in getting us to Net Zero and producing the right outcomes, should not, at any rate, be understated, because they can and will get us there. However, they are, as they say, not the only tech in town, and are one of many solutions, and many complementary and ancillary measures that we currently have at our disposal and could be making greater use of. Equally, we cannot understate the value of innovation, and the rapidity at which solutions can be brought about that will bring us closer to achieving our goals.
Technology Agnosticism, in summary, is about preserving optionality to deliver the best technologies for the right outcomes in order to decarbonise heat.