13th January 2022

The energy to fight climate change

The effort to combat climate change will require new technologies in homes and a shift in consumer behaviour. Steve Playle examines the role trading standards has to play.

By Steve Playle
CTSI Lead Officer for Energy & Smart Meters
Has the climate change agenda got anything to do with trading standards? A properly resourced profession could have a tremendous input
It will be interesting to look at the future marketing promises made by the suppliers of heat pumps and whether they are accurate or not

It’s impossible for a day to go by without seeing or hearing something about climate change – never more so than when Glasgow hosted COP26 in the first two weeks of November 2021. The COP26 summit brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Whether anything meaningful was actually achieved remains to be seen, but the hope of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°c is still very much alive – although, according to Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, its pulse is weak.

Looking at the science, human activity is the main cause of climate change. Burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal produces carbon dioxide (CO₂), a greenhouse gas, so-called because it produces the ‘greenhouse effect’. I do not intend to deliver a lecture but a vital step forward is for humankind to reduce CO₂ emissions and, in the longer term, eliminate them. The UK does not actually contribute an awful lot to CO₂ emissions these days but we are now in a global economy and everyone has to step forward and do better.

We all take energy for granted. It’s always there at the flick of a switch on a cold night, when you turn on your PC or when you fancy a cup of tea. There is a massive infrastructure of energy generation and distribution behind the switch and there is a National Grid control room at a secret location that constantly balances supply and demand. To understand where our electricity comes from, I’d recommend taking a look at the website grid.iamkate.com, which shows the real-time mix of fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear generation that keeps the lights on.

It is quite rare these days that any coal power stations need to be fired up and in the past year, about 25% of our electricity came from renewables – that is solar, wind and hydro. But in the past year, we have also still relied on fossil fuels, primarily gas, to produce 42% of our electricity. And this is the problem, because the combustion of gas creates CO₂, which contributes to global warming.

The UK Government has committed to making electricity generation fossil fuel-free by 2035, which is a massive challenge and will require further investment in wind and nuclear generation. But the elephant in the room is that when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, we need to get electricity from somewhere else if we can’t just turn on the gas-fuelled power stations.

The other consideration is keeping homes warm and having hot water available. I can’t find any official data but best estimates show that there are 23 million domestic properties using a gas boiler to produce hot water and heating. The same estimates suggest that domestic gas boilers produce double the amount of CO₂ that is spewed out by our gas-fired power stations. The Government has announced that by 2025, all new homes will be banned from installing gas and oil boilers and will instead be heated by low-carbon alternatives. No date has been set yet for gas boilers to be banned altogether but this will be a logical, if unpopular, move in the near future.

Has the climate change agenda actually got anything whatsoever to do with trading standards? In my role as CTSI Lead Officer for Energy, I think that a properly resourced trading standards profession could have a tremendous input and I will try to explain why.

The role of trading standards

Part of the overall solution is to reduce our demand for electricity or heat, which will mean burning less gas and releasing less CO₂. We have all heard of the pressure group Insulate Britain, and they have certainly made an impact with their unconventional and disruptive demonstrations.

The truth is that UK governments have been trying for a long time to insulate the UK housing stock. One of my first jobs as a trainee trading standards officer nearly 40 years ago was to get up into the roof space of domestic premises in Walthamstow to check the depth of insulation material that had been blown in, paid for using grant funding. It was supposed to be six inches thick but I found it was usually fine around the loft hatch but non-existent in the corners.

In 2013, £400m of public money was spent on The Green Deal, which Ministers trumpeted as “the biggest home improvement programme since the Second World War”. I sat on the Green Deal Consumer Protection Panel but my lone trading standards voice was sometimes lost within the business-dominated group. The scheme was abandoned after two years as MPs admitted it had been a “complete fiasco” that brought almost no environmental benefits.

More recently, in 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the Green Homes Grant with a target to spend £2bn to help 600,000 households reduce their carbon footprint. The scheme was axed in early 2021 and the National Audit Office said: “It was not executed to an acceptable standard, significantly limiting its impact on job creation and carbon reduction.”

It is clear that there is an appetite to try to insulate Britain but it really isn’t that simple. On the one hand, there are some businesses which see such initiatives as an opportunity to make a fast buck, misleading consumers along the way and leaving properties in a worse state than when they arrived.

Balancing levels of insulation and air circulation is not easy, and if carried out incorrectly can leave householders with sometimes very serious damp and condensation issues. On the other hand, I think many consumers find it difficult to understand the many complexities and potential benefits of insulation and choose to do nothing. Many consumers do not embrace change and there is a real challenge here for the behavioural scientists.

In terms of domestic heating and hot water, the pressure is on heat pumps to fill the void that will be left by the demise of the fossil fuel boiler.

There are two main types of heat pump. Air source heat pumps extract heat from the atmosphere around the unit placed outside your home. Ground source heat pumps require fluid-filled pipes to be buried in your garden and heat is extracted from the soil.

The technology is evolving all the time but the costs are high, out of reach of most households at the moment, even with the benefit of limited subsidies that may be available. The costs will most certainly reduce over time and it remains to be seen whether consumers will take the plunge and embrace heat pumps.

Part of the problem is that the jury is out on whether this technology can deliver the same level of heat and hot water as a traditional fossil fuel boiler. If a recent Daily Mail article by renowned former BBC journalist John Humphrys is anything to go by, installing a heat pump does not replicate the traditional boiler experience. Others say that where heat pumps have been installed, they are perfectly satisfactory and perform the heating functions well.

It will be interesting to look at the future marketing promises made by the suppliers of heat pumps and whether they are accurate or not. The reality is that a move to heat pumps will require a seismic shift in consumer behaviour. It will no longer be possible to flick a switch and heat up the house in 15 minutes.  Instead, the electrically driven heat pump will need to be whirring away 24/7. Added to that, an existing home where a heat pump is installed is likely to require upgrades to the plumbing, radiators and insulation efficiency but, even then, the notion of walking around your home in winter in shorts and a T-shirt may be a luxury of the past.

Getting smart

I believe that balancing the supply and demand for electricity, with no recourse after 2035 to the instant fix that gas-fired power stations can currently provide when required, is going to be an extreme challenge. This is where I have a theory that smart meters will come into play and demand will be regulated through carefully manipulated pricing structures.

When demand for domestic electricity is highest – normally between 1600 hours and 1900 hours on weekdays – the unit price will rocket and those who are less able to afford it will be forced to change their behaviour. I have been watching the evolution of the £11bn smart meter roll-out and some of the misleading claims being made about them very carefully for the last five years. Although they aren’t compulsory at the moment, I think it is just a question of time.

Another way of balancing the supply and demand for electricity is through the use of battery storage to make up for shortfalls in generation during peak periods of demand. If you think about the growing move to electric cars, one solution may be that you run the immediate electricity demands of your household from your electric vehicle’s battery and then recharge it in the middle of the night when demand is low. Or there will be a growing industry for the installation of domestic battery storage capacity in the cupboard under the stairs, which can be used in the same way.

A move to this type of technology – all mostly paid for by consumers by the way – and the opportunities for businesses to promote and sell the necessary hardware and services in less than a generation, is
a real concern.

The multi-billion-pound investment by consumers in home insulation, heat pumps, smart meters, electric cars and domestic battery storage will transform the UK in the next 15 years. What could possibly go wrong? The truth is, everything. The trading standards voice needs to be heard every step of the way to protect consumers, reputable businesses and the planet.

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