NIC lambasts Ministers for failures in decarbonising heat and buildings

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has criticised the UK Government for its failures to improve building energy efficiency, promote low-carbon heating and make the changes to energy infrastructure needed to enable the net-zero transition.

NIC lambasts Ministers for failures in decarbonising heat and buildings

Pictured: A home fitted with a heat pump

The Commission has today (16 May) released its annual infrastructure progress review, which concludes that progress has been “mixed” in efforts to make Britain’s key infrastructure fit for the future, with many instances of stalled progress and regression in environmental performance.

Commissioners have expressed concerns that the pace of emissions reductions in the UK have “stalled” in recent years. While progress has been made in shifting electricity production away from coal and towards renewables and nuclear, the Commission has outlined an array of challenges ahead.

Its report states that decarbonising buildings will be the UK’s “single biggest challenge” to achieving its legally binding emissions targets, as this will necessitate the involvement of all households and businesses. This echoes previous calls to action from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which last year warned that stronger policy and regulation is needed to deliver more than three-quarters of the required emissions reductions from buildings.

The Commission has concluded that policy flip-flopping has undermined confidence in heat pumps and kept technology prices high, thus disincentivising families and businesses from investing. This must be “urgently resolved”, it adds.

Earlier this year, the Government delayed a requirement for heating manufacturers to ensure that heat pumps account for an ever-increasing proportion of their products. It has, however, increased the maximum amount of grant funding each home can access for switching from a fossil fuel boiler to a heat pump.

The NIC wants the Government to make a strategic decision on hydrogen in home heating before its promised timeline of 2026. The Commission sees heat pumps as “the only viable option at scale” and concludes that they are suitable for the majority of homes.

This strategic decision should be backed with credible plans to get the UK on track to deliver 600,000 annual heat pump installations by 2028, up from around 20,000 in 2022. Additionally, new connections to the gas grid should be ended from 2025.

The Commission is also calling for a more “comprehensive and long-term” plan to reduce energy demand from buildings following the failure of landmark policy packages like the Green Homes Grant. Its report identifies owned and rented housing as the primary concern.

It calls for a new nationwide scheme to provide homes with zero-cost financing for energy efficiency improvements, plus the release of proper plans to improve energy efficiency in the private rented sector following the axing of forthcoming standards last September.

“Cancelling higher energy efficiency standards… has created material uncertainty for landlords and tenants,” states the report. “There is no effective policy to replace these regulations and tenants will pay higher energy bills as a result”.

NIC chair Sir John Armitt has stated that the recommended interventions “should set household energy bills on a downward trajectory over the longer-term”, as the UK will be less exposed to spikes in gas prices.

Electricity system challenges

The review offers some praise for the Government in its efforts to decarbonise electricity production by increasing the share of renewables and nuclear.

However, it also raises concerns about future progress, including gaps in planning to scale energy storage and provide flexible generation capacity that is not high-carbon.

The UK Government is aiming to bring the majority of gas-fired electricity generation offline through to 2035, save for flexible generation plants with carbon capture technologies fitted. For this to happen, the NIC has concluded, capacity market contracts for gas power plants must be shortened from next year, to avoid projects from being locked in.

The NIC recommends that the Government aims for gas power plants with no carbon capture to generate less than 2% of the UK’s electricity by 2035.

Additionally, the NIC’s review urges Ministers to set a target to deliver 60GW of short-duration flexibility by 2035. A new final business model for long-duration energy storage will need to be made sooner rather than later, if this target is to be met.

Skills gaps

Also this week, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned that the UK lacks the skilled workforce necessary to deliver key infrastructure projects that will decarbonise the nation and make it more resilient to climate change.

The PAC also believes these pressing skills shortages could get worse as governments and businesses overseas seek qualified workers.

Plans are urgently needed to train and retain more specialists in the fields of engineering, project management and design, the PAC’s report states.

The UK Government has not published a comprehensive update to its skills strategy since legislating for net-zero by 2050 back in 2019. It has launched a Green Jobs Taskforce and is working with businesses and education providers to develop and scale a range of new qualifications, however.

Comments (1)

  1. Mike Mann says:

    It is taking this government 5 years to make small and still inadequate changes, then they delay implementation to throw everyone’s business plans out by 5 years, then they prevaricate over what the plan is to actually deliver policy around 2050, and the education and training plans we have said were needed 15 years ago are still nowhere near clarity, never mind delivery. If this government was a dog we would put it to sleep and bury it somewhere it would not be disturbed for 50 years or so.

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