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Closing the reality gap on zero emission housing

A Lawmakers are at last addressing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings in the battle against climate change. But as Calum Innes reports, effective change presents challenges.

Scotland is striving to be a world leader in decarbonisation – the Climate Change (Emissions reduction Targets) (scotland) Act 2019 creates a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2045.

The Edinburgh Government recently released a consultation on setting new housing  standards to cut emissions to achieve net zero.

As some 20% of such emissions come from buildings, the proposed New Build Heat Standard would from 2024 require heating that produces zero direct greenhouse gas emissions in all new homes and non-residential buildings.

Of course, improved specification of the building’s fabric is essential but instead of gas central heating, new builds will feature ground- or air-source heat pumps or potentially even hydrogen heating systems. However, heat pumps use a lot of electricity, increasing demand on the grid at a time when Scotland aims to generate all electricity from renewables.

As a quarter of homes in Scotland face fuel poverty every year, replacing gas heating will need to be affordable.

We have previously looked at projects involving local generation in terms of solar PV and potentially battery storage to reduce electricity costs; but such solutions require significant capital expenditure.

The proposals are laudable, but not without challenges, as recent experience shows. Galbraith has been involved in a housing development for some 20 years from the start of site promotion through the development plan to the granting of planning permission for five phases, each in the order of 200 house units.

For the first two phases, heating was provided by mains gas, but when the third came to be developed last year, the mains supply was deemed insufficient and an alternative was required.

Given the pressure for renewables we see above, you might consider technology such as heat pumps would be favoured, but the developer chose instead to use liquid petroleum gas. Why? Because customers are familiar with LPG, the availability of servicing engineers, and air-source heat pumps would encroach into limited space outside.

The next development phase will be different, but what needs to happen to achieve the political aspirations?

  • Supply chain – last year some 22,000 new houses were built in Scotland. At present there is insufficient renewable technology manufacturing capacity for that scale of demand. 
  • Enhance support infrastructure and training skills to deal with servicing and maintaining the technology.

How will this be achieved? Major housebuilders will have to develop partnerships with specialist manufacturers to encourage production capacity, ensure supply and facilitate the necessary R&D.