Good progress in decarbonising electricity will not compensate for slow progress on heat and backwards progress on transport, says the committee’s report.
Further, its existing policies are insufficient to meet the EU-mandated targets and the fault lies with the government. It says: “Our overarching concern is that the UK is at risk of failing to meet the targets not because they are impossible, but because Government departments have not cooperated effectively.”
The ECC Committee exists to scrutinise the government, but its conclusions carry no legal weight.
The UK may have voted to leave the EU, but for the moment it remains a member of the bloc and this means that it is still bound by the EU’s renewable energy targets.
As part of the EU’s overarching goal of producing 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, the UK must source an average of 15 per cent of its energy for transport, heat and electricity from low- and zero-carbon sources.
This is divided into a 30 per cent target for electricity, 12 per cent for heat and 10 per cent for transport fuels. These sub-targets are set by the UK in its National Renewable Energy Action Plan. Energy is considered renewable if it is sourced from wind, solar, hydro, bioenergy, waste energy, or heat from the air, ground and water.
For reference, in 2015, power generation, transport and residential heating accounted for 33 per cent, 31 per cent and 16 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions, respectively (pdf).
I think that many people have underestimated quite how difficult and expensive it would be to bring about a widespread conversion of heating to electric heat pumps.
Richard Howard, head of environment and energy, Policy Exchange
So far, the UK is progressing well on electricity. In 2015, it sourced 22 per cent from renewables and is expected to surpass the 30 per cent mark by 2020.
In transport and heat, however, the news is less good. The government’s uncertainty that it would meet its targets was acknowledged by a leaked letter in 2015 from Amber Rudd, then secretary of state for energy and climate change, where she projected that only 11.5 per cent of UK energy would be renewable in 2020.
The UK is currently not even halfway towards its heating target, and progress towards its transport target actually reversed between 2014 and 2015, with the proportion falling from 4.93 per cent to 4.23 per cent.
There are two principle policies in place designed to meet these targets: the Renewable Heat Incentive and the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is a subsidy that the Treasury gives to producers of renewable heat. It is used to support biomass boilers, heat pumps and solar thermal. Participants are paid a tariff per unit of energy produced.
The government has proposed changes to the RHI, including spending more on heat pumps and less on biomass.
But the report suggests that the government has got its priorities wrong, and that these proposed reforms would not be the optimal pathway to the 2020 renewable heat target. It says: “Heat pumps have proven unsatisfactory in actual use, yet are being prioritised over biomass — which has been successful.”
The think tank Policy Exchange has also issued a report today on renewable heat. It reaches a similar conclusion about the unsatisfactory level of reliance on heat pumps when it comes to decarbonisation.
The government’s renewable heat strategy, developed in 2012 and 2013 by the now defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change, relies on this technology to provide more than 80 per cent of domestic heating by 2050.
But to do so would be extremely costly, says Policy Exchange. Installing these pumps in 80 per cent of homes would cost around £200bn, with an extra £100bn required to expand and upgrade the power system to cater for additional electricity demand.
Richard Howard, head of environment and energy at Policy Exchange and co-author of the report, tells Carbon Brief:
“One of the main conclusions of our analysis is that electric heat pumps look like a very expensive way to decarbonise domestic heating. We have identified alternatives which we think can still achieve significant decarbonisation, but with far less of an impact on consumers, networks, and so on. In general, I think that many people have underestimated quite how difficult and expensive it would be to bring about a widespread conversion of heating to electric heat pumps.”
Instead, this report recommends that the government focuses on energy efficiency, decarbonising gas use, and greener gases, such as biomethane, to reduce emissions from heating in the long term.