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Charles Moore: Why are we expected to abandon gas boilers when the expensive alternative won’t reduce emissions?

Charles More, The Daily Telegraph

People are beginning to wonder what life will be like if they are forced to pay more for a technology which will make them colder.

Rationality in human affairs is hard to come by, but we love it when we find it. When it comes to spending money, a well-functioning market is the best provider of rationality. Competitive prices send out comprehensible signals about value. On that basis, we can try to make rational decisions.

Rationality in spending matters most over things which we feel we need and know must last for a long time, such as a house or a car. In a fairly cold country like Britain, our houses must have reliable space and water heating. You must get its cost and its efficiency right.

In the brief space between the defeat of militant trade unions and ensuing privatisations of the late 20th century and the green zealotry of the 21st, we had a rational energy market. We could choose between quite a wide range of energy sources and providers. Our energy was getting greener with the rise of natural gas, backed by nuclear, and the decline of coal. Prices were not severely distorted by subsidy or tax.

That began to change under Tony Blair and has changed yet more under both parties since. Now we are committed to Net Zero carbon dioxide by 2050.

Today, the Government subsidises renewables by sticking an estimated £12  billion per year on the national electricity bill. Prices for domestic customers today are about 40 per cent higher than they would be without climate policies. You can tell the Government now senses trouble coming: yesterday it floated the idea that poorer families should be paid offsets against higher energy bills caused by the drive to cut carbon emissions.

Can we consumers make rational choices in this situation? Roughly 23 million homes (85 per cent of the total) are heated by natural gas, which is by no means dirty and is efficient and quite cheap. But the Net Zero doctrine’s quest for carbon neutrality frowns on gas. It sees salvation in heat pumps and hydrogen boilers and wishes to skew rules and prices accordingly.

In common with millions whose gas boilers will soon need changing, I find myself in a quandary. If the Government were not interfering, new gas boilers would be the simplest replacement for the old and would probably provide the cheapest energy for the next 20 years or more.

But the Government is interfering. So householders trying to make long-term decisions about their heating face radical uncertainty. If we get gas boilers, how long will we be allowed to keep them? (Until 2035 is the latest rumour.) Will the gas we buy have a carbon tax slapped on it? Will we be paid by the Government to switch to heat pumps or hydrogen? Since the real costs are opaque, how can our future liabilities be clear?

Unlike gas boilers, heat pumps do not work terribly well. Both air-source and ground-source pumps suffer from the grave difficulty that they are least reliable and effective when the weather is at its coldest. If you get a heat pump, therefore, your water will probably not be warm enough for a bath – and sometimes you will be freezing – without an auxiliary supply of heating. That could be energy-gobbling bar fires, or it could be hydrogen boilers, but the latter are not ready yet.

Besides, there is no room for ground-source heat pumps in the average urban house (it’s much easier if you have a large garden and, best of all, your own pond in which to place the coils). It is never rational to buy something that does not work, especially when you could easily be paying more than £20,000. No doubt heat pumps will improve with technological development, but it is a strange state of affairs when public policy tries to persuade people to hurry up and buy a poor product and to dissuade them from buying a tried and tested one (gas boilers) which successfully warm the great majority of our fellow citizens.

And this encouragement, of course, is all on the assumption that heat pumps installed in this decade will help save the planet. Leave aside the well known, yet officially ignored, point that British carbon emissions amount to less than 1 per cent of the global total, whereas China, Russia and India – three great powers with no intention of following our example – make up 40 per cent. Consider instead whether the case for heat pumps rather than gas boilers might, even in its own green terms, be suspect.

I confess I am not a regular reader of The Chemical Engineer, but my attention has been drawn to an interesting piece in that monthly by Tommy Isaac. He analyses the relative carbon production of heat pumps and gas boilers, taking into account the need for “marginal supply” to avoid intermittency – a problem with pumps, but not with gas.

The overall calculation, he says, is not just a matter of the carbon emitted at the point of use: it’s also a matter of fuel sources. “If a household converts from gas boiler to heat pump, additional electricity demand from the house will be created to provide the necessary heat.” That electricity supply “will come from natural gas combustion”.

Given that boilers and pumps have roughly the same lifetime, Mr Isaac says, you can calculate if there will be any “tangible difference in their lifetime emissions”. Given that gas will be the marginal supplier until at least 2040-45, he concludes that the carbon emissions of each system over that time will be so little different that the choice is simply “a matter of personal preferences and relative economics”.

If Mr Isaac is right, two thoughts arise. The first is that my “personal preferences and relative economics” (and those of millions) will be for gas boilers. The second is that the entire government attempt to shift us away from gas over this period is a waste of time and money. Of course, I do not know whether he is right, but I feel much more inclined to trust an engineer who can count than a politician who is pretending to save the planet and knows that he will no longer be around at the point when it becomes obvious that he has failed.

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