Richard North, 27/10/2021  

I didn't intend to return to "net zero" today, although I guess we're stuck with commenting on it for a while, as long as CoP26 is in the offing. But, with or without this dreadful event, I could not resist taking on the bizarre response from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), to Johnson's plan.

The response itself takes no fewer than 53 pages, headed: "Independent Assessment: The UK's Net Zero Strategy", with a mercifully shorter summary currently being retailed in the Guardian.

According to the newspaper report, the CCC believes that the strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2050 is "achievable and affordable", and is considered to be the most comprehensive in the G20. It thus strengthens the position of the UK as it prepares to preside over the CoP26 summit.

The CCC, remarks that the strategy is very "market-led" and focused on technology, from heat pumps to electric cars to low-carbon jet fuel, and lauds it as "a big step forward" from setting targets to planning their delivery. Nevertheless, we are told, it believes that implementation will be "a huge task".

Turning to the actual response, the length requires a certain selectivity, so I have focused mainly on the CCC's comments about heat pumps, which give a more than adequate feel for the line the Committee is taking.

Here, the Committee want to see a roll-out of up to 1.7 million units per year, and thinks that "innovation will be key". But it also acknowledges that deployment is important in reducing costs, sending "strong signals to businesses that large future markets await them". This, it says, "should encourage later-stage research, development and early deployment from the private sector".

It is worth noting here that the CCC recognises that the "Heat and Buildings Strategy" backs electrification of heating via heat pumps as "the primary route to decarbonisation" and reserves the development of hydrogen as "a potential alternative".

The focus is on "work with industry to cut costs and improve the consumer offering on heat pumps" but there is also the government's commitment to "addressing existing distortions between electricity and gas prices" to "ensure heat pumps will be no more expensive to run than gas boilers". This step, the Committee thinks, "will be vital to success".

But tucked in there is something I hadn't picked up, an intention to impose an obligation on boiler manufacturers "to grow the numbers of low-carbon heating appliances installed each year". They would have to sell a certain number of heat pumps, proportional to their boiler sales over a given period.

Out for consultation at the moment, the proposal is that obligated parties will meet the deployment targets "as the penalties associated with the obligation will be designed to deter non-compliance".

The government, however, does not specify the nature of those penalties, and while there will be a requirement of manufacturers to sell heat pumps, there is no indication of how those companies will manage their businesses if people simply refuse to buy. Predictably, and entirely understandably, the government is being accused of "Soviet-style planning".

Mike Foster, chief executive of the Energy and Utilities Alliance likens this the heat pump equivalent of being forced to sell unwanted Lada cars that consumers don't want and won't buy.

Then, there are other elements of coercion. Standards for residential and commercial rented properties will be imposed, which the CCC believes "should drive improvement" in rented stock. As for the 60 percent of homes which are owner-occupied, it looks as if mortgage providers will be recruited to refuse loans on properties not suitably equipped, initially voluntarily, with an option to make this mandatory in future.

However, the CCC notes that much will depend on industry successfully driving down costs and thereby "strengthening the consumer offering". Thus the government is relying on "cost parity" with boilers by the end of the decade. There is, though, the fallback of the government being prepared to step in with unspecified "alternative approaches" should the market under-deliver.

Nevertheless, the CCC notes that there are gaps in the strategy, notably insulation policy for owner-occupied homes. Here, it says, policy is weak, which means that supply side issues in home insulation are likely to persist which could undermine efforts on home heating.

What the CCC doesn't seem to pick up on are the broad hints in the "boiler obligation" consultation, suggesting that sales of heat pumps will be skewed towards converting commercial premises, public sector buildings, and the domestic rental sector. This will leave the "hard nut" of owner occupiers, who are spending their own money, until last, when other means of coercion will have been devised.

There is, nevertheless, the underlying assumption that piped hydrogen might come to the rescue, despite the fact that there have been no estimates of what the domestic sale price of gas might be, or any estimates as to the scale and cost of the necessary upgrades in the distribution system.

Nor is there any recognition that, if manufacturing decarbonisation is to go ahead, supplies of hydrogen will have to be reserved for the iron and steel sectors, glass manufacture, and other energy intensive users where electrification isn't a viable option. On that basis, it is extremely unlikely that there will be any hydrogen supplies available for domestic use before 2050 – if then.

And this just about typifies the CCC response. Although it glibly states that Johnson's plan is "achievable and affordable", it glosses over the technical details and complications which actually turn the strategy into self-delusional fantasy.

For instance, at the heart of the "Heat and Buildings Strategy" is the irrational belief that the boiler manufacturing industry will be able to achieve "cost parity" between boilers an heat pumps – there being absolutely no grounds to support such a contention.

Invented in 1856, heat pumps are already mature technology, with performance parameters constrained by the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Any efficiency gains through technological innovation can only be marginal, while concerns about the global warming potential of refrigerants may well increase future costs and limit improvements in efficiency.

On the other hand, heat pumps have been widely used on the continent, where they have been mass produced for many decades, with the leading UK boiler producer having been making heat pumps since 2007. Thus, while production volumes will increase, it is unlikely that there will be any substantial cost reductions through economies of scale in manufacturing. Reflecting a scarcity of qualified fitters, installation costs, if anything, are likely to increase.

Indicative of how far the policy departs from reality, we only have to see the response from industry, which does not constitute a glowing tribute to the Johnson plan.

A selection of those responses reflect the views aired here, with one company querying the government's hopes of driving down costs, stating that the ever-increasing cost of the materials needed to build the technology makes this highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, adding: "Coupled with this is the shortage of skilled technicians and engineers needed to install the heat pumps. All these factors combine to keep installation costs high".

Another company declares: "If you think you're going to get a heat pump installation, with a correctly designed and installed heating and hot water system for £5,000, then you should also expect the company to soon close their doors and start another…". Yet another says, "We estimate that only 50 percent of homes would be suitable currently, but when you take into account the costs and inadequate funding offered, this will be a much lesser percentage".

One more calls into question the whole concept, asserting that the UK is pushing heat pumps as a solution when they are just a sticking plaster on a serious problem, while another is concerned over the shortage of fitters. "Someone who has spent their career installing boilers cannot just turn round and start putting in heat pumps without detailed training to understand the nuances of low temperature heating including improving building insulation", it says.

The CCC's "achievable and affordable" delusion, therefore, is another milestone in the climate change fantasy, stretching the limits of credulity of the hard-pressed public who are to be called upon to pay the bills.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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