The current transition towards a low-carbon economy is making progress, with the UK’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd carbon budget targets having been met or projected to do so. However, meeting the 4th and 5th carbon budget targets is already far from plan and the milestones are unlikely to be met unless, amongst other things, heating in the current domestic building stock can be decarbonised. The declaration of climate emergencies and the net zero 2050 carbon targets announced by the government in 2019 highlight the importance of decarbonising the built environment and more importantly improving the thermal performance of built assets.
The Committee on Climate Change has called for housing retrofit to be defined as a UK Infrastructure priority. UK homes are not fit for the future; reducing their heat loss and ensuring they do not overheat will also improve health, wellbeing and comfort, including for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those living with chronic illnesses . The economic and social benefits of radically reducing heat loss in homes is manifestly evident. There were an estimated 2.55 million (11%) fuel poor households in England in 2016.
The retrofit challenge is significant and complex. The UK’s national electricity grid operates at near design capacity at peak load with the decarbonisation (i.e. electrification) of heat forecast to significantly exacerbate grid stress. The transfer of 25% of the peak winter heat demand (currently delivered through gas boilers at building level) from the gas network to the electricity grid will result in 90% of the electricity distribution network operating beyond its designed capacity.
District Heating Systems are a long way from being cost effective in suburbs where energy demand density is much lower than city centres and hydrogen is set to play a role in our energy system but faces significant technical and financial challenges. Under all feasible scenarios, the reduction of winter heat demand will be increasingly vital.
The Active Building Centre Research Programme Approach
Despite the massive potential impacts of this issue, work in the field is lacking. To take advantage of rapid and continuing advances in materials and data science, we need to work harder to turn this new science into actionable new methods and technologies.
Active Building Centre Research Programme are developing scalable solutions to address the analysis of the retrofit challenge, the technical solutions to address this and the market-facing platforms that will connect building owners to the solution providers.
This work will provide a key element in how we address what the UK Government Council for Science and Technology have described as one of two moon shots: unlocking the opportunity to retrofit the built environment to achieve the Net Zero Carbon target.