GAS-GUZZLING heating systems are on the way out. Great news – or is it?

Everyone’s agreed CO2-emitting gas boilers have to go – the current gas price hikes and supply crisis only add to the watertight case made for years by climate scientists.

But being necessary doesn’t make the dash from gas any less scary for householders. Folk have generally put off changing gas boilers because of the cost, upheaval and uncertainty about the best alternative. And actually, Boris Johnson’s announcement this week doesn’t really change that although air source heat pumps are now the “green” heating method of choice.

There will be a 2035 “target” for all new heating systems installed in UK homes to use low-carbon technologies like heat pumps or low-carbon fuels like hydrogen but families won’t be forced to replace existing fossil fuel boilers.

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So, will anyone do it? Beyond the tiny proportion who get the £5/6000 grant to upgrade – I’d guess gey few because the costs will land completely on the shoulders of individual householders.

But give him time. Johnson will doubtless shift green surcharges and taxes from electricity on to gas, so that sticking with gas for heating becomes ever more expensive and many families feel forced to take the plunge – even though switching from gas to heat pumps will plunge most of them into debt.

Does this stack up? Does it feel like the best and fairest way to save the planet? No, it doesn’t.

The National: Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson intends to tackle the gas heating crisis – boiler by boiler, house by house and individual by individual. No party-political rival or energy commentator is questioning that method – only the amount needed to complete the herculean task. And yet this individual, quintessentially British approach to providing heat is almost as destructive as our gas boilers.

No other north European country leaves the bulk of its people to sink or swim individually on heating (it’s why Finland’s rate of excess winter deaths is half that of Britain, despite London’s average January temperature being 10C higher).

The big, open secret of all the Nordics and “low” countries of Northern Europe is that they deliver heating on a collective not an individual basis.

And this is our big opportunity to join them, by making the most of this crisis and switching away from two destructive habits – using gas to heat 85% of British homes and heating homes via millions of individual boilers, whose green upgrading (and subsequent maintenance) will rack up massive costs for householders and leave grandchildren facing the same exorbitant costs when the next big upgrade rolls around.

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Forcing families into crippling debt to decarbonise their own homes is crazily unfair – though typical of a British Government which always shunts problems on to the shoulders of “hard-working families” instead of delivering sustainable, collective system change.

To repeat, the suggestion that most folk should convert their individual gas boiler to an individual heat pump is just plain wrong. For some folk living in remote areas, individual heat pumps may be the only option.

But for the vast majority they are a relatively expensive, stop-gap solution compared to decarbonising Scotland in manageable, cost-saving clumps – by neighbourhood or local housing association – not house by house.

We have the technology to make a pioneering shift to local community grids (more in a minute) and district heating, where hot water is sent from one central source to local households and offices via pipes. It’s been used for almost a century in Finland and provides 50% of total heat demands against 1% in Scotland. District heating is used to heat the industrial city of Drammen near Oslo using Glasgow-made heat pumps. New district heating systems in Denmark are regarded as state of the art. But not here.

Despite a passing mention for district heating in Boris Johnson’s new plans, that’s not nearly enough to create bold, government-led, total system change – yet that’s what we need. Of course, collective, state-led action isn’t the Conservatives’ style. Nor the SNP’s – yet. That needs to change – urgently in light of Johnson’s hopeless “plan”.

The Scottish Government must use its complete control over heating to drive district heating now.

The National:

According to Dr Keith Baker (above) of Glasgow Caledonian University: “There is enough private cash to invest in the pipes and hardware while a National Energy Company could finance and undertake the connection of homes and businesses. District heating may be a loss leader for years. So private capital needs government signals to invest – a long term plan of 30 years, not the ‘on-off’ signals the Scottish Government is currently giving.”

District heating works best in small towns or housing schemes. The system can include a couple of hundred homes or a few thousand and uses one central heat pump (like the NEAT pump in Clydebank which uses heat from sea water) to heat many homes. Or it can use solar panels in fields gathering heat and dump it into boreholes or “inter-seasonal heat stores” – covered reservoirs with a gravel base that can hold heat over the winter. With just one more energy source the cocktail is complete – perhaps heat recovery from local industry or (as they do in Denmark) biomass material obtained from within 5kms of the plant.

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ANOTHER possibility is the local community grid, which basically distributes electricity around a locality instead of just hot water.

Green academics have modelled a local community grid where a Housing Association could site PV panels more efficiently in a field beside its homes and connect to other local energy sources using the National Grid only as “supplier of last resort”.

Such a system could save each householder from having to buy their own individual heat pump (which might need replacement within 10-15 years) and the system could meet 95% of the Housing Association’s energy efficiency savings while delivering a 20% reduction in tenants’ bills, paying for itself over 25-30 years. Surely this is better for all sorts of communities than millions spent on more individual boilers?

Community grids could also work in city districts, where tenemental law makes it hard to use top flats for solar PV, but community mini grids would let all residents benefit from the electricity generated by their shared roof.

Apparently, Scotland’s distribution networks are keen to develop smart-local, community grids. So, the Scottish Government could encourage pilot projects now.

It must also end the competitive project funding free-for-all, where a one-off fund is rolled out with six months’ notice and proposals are duly submitted by all and sundry. That’s not nearly strategic enough.

Holyrood should abandon its Westminster-style insistence on “not picking winners” and invite bids for specific district heating projects in areas of fuel poverty, pledging to fund companies working with councils and communities to deliver long-term district heating pilots. That cash needs to be ring-fenced as district heating/community grid pilot cash because such vital but complicated projects will never win open competitions.

Finally, a public Energy Company or Development Agency could provide the technical expertise that politicians lack, offer better prospects and job security to engineers from the private sector, run multiple projects across many council areas, problem-solve, build knowledge within government and update our national skills base.

Yes, I know. It all sounds a bit obscure and mundane in the face of the big jazzy solutions being touted by Boris Johnson. But solutions to heat Scotland collectively are ready to roll right now – the only way we can “dash from gas” with social fairness and without breaking the bank.