Energy: The transition to decarbonisation of the UK heat industry

University of Birmingham

According to Albert Einstein, “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” The present real world challenges which turn convention on  its head and erode long established traditions, for some will be the launchpad.

The story of Wang Yongmin is an interesting one. Wang Yongmin was a bright Chinese computer scientist, who developed Wubi. Wubi was the answer to a conundrum that faced Chinese culture under the premiership of Mao Zedong and successors. At the time at which computers were being developed in the West with the QWERTY keyboard based on the restricted 26 character Latin alphabet, China had a 70,000 character set and an impossible task of accommodating this into any kind of practical input device.

This presented a major technological barrier for the modernisation of China and many were in favour of replacing the pictorial characters with something which could be encoded using QWERTY. Wang Yongmin devised an ingenious method for decomposing the pictorial characters, which had been part of Chinese culture for millennia, into common constituents; a reductionist approach which meant that via the Wubi method saved the Chinese characters. This is now typically the fastest method of typing, even faster than QWERTY fully, embracing predictive and cloud based approaches which now places China ahead of the West.

The challenge for the UK heat industry

A similar challenge exists when it comes to the need for decarbonisation of heat in the UK. The UK’s climate means that heat is about 40% of the energy generation and 1/3 of the CO2 emissions. At the moment heat has been parked as it is too difficult. Progress in decarbonisation of electricity has been held up as a national success, where the large scale penetration of wind and solar have really shifted the dial to the point that coal is an infrequent contributor to grid electricity. This change has been possible as electricity is generated in big national facilities and distributed through the grid. As such a single intervention can reach many homes.

Heat on the other hand, is typically generated locally and it is the energy vector, gas, which is distributed. The decarbonisation of heat will require improvements to thermal insulation and heat generation in over 25 million homes. The solutions will be varied depending on location with perhaps hydrogen replacing gas in the gas grid and electric heat pumps, which pump heat from outside to in, replacing gas boilers. There will also be a role for distributed, district, heating solutions.

These solutions are emerging, but the deployment looks an enormous challenge. Not least of which is a switch from gas to low carbon heat will require a reinforcing of the national and local infrastructure. Heat pumps consume more electricity than is presently generated and a more robust electricity grid that exists in many streets. There is the need to scale up from the manufacture of almost no heat pumps or hydrogen boilers to the production of millions per year and then there is the skills demand to support this.

Making business part of the transition

Wubi wasn’t developed by accident, it was an intensive 5 year national programme. Similarly, decarbonisation of heat will not happen by accident but requires national governance and national coordination. On the other side of delivery there are enormous benefits for business that is part of the transition with the international market for low carbon heat solutions of a scale of trillions of dollars and a chance to leapfrog the competition.

To be successful, heat technology manufacturers need to be supported in terms of scale of manufacturing, skilled engineers and installers trained, supply chains built and the service sector established. Local heat plans need to be integrated into a national plan to ensure the patchwork of solutions can be accommodated through national electricity and hydrogen generation.

The National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat has a key role to play in helping support this transition and the growth of the heat industry. Given the industrial leadership in the region, this is a golden opportunity for the Midlands to find simplicity from clutter, find harmony from discord and create opportunity from difficulty.

“To tackle the climate emergency we need to go faster and further than ever before. The next ten years will be crucial. With technology advancing so rapidly, a net-zero future is achievable but nobody has done anything like this, on this scale before. Business can’t do it alone”   Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General, CBI

Professor Martin Freer
University of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute

For further information about the Energy - Decarbonisation of Heat Hub and the Speed to Scale Region programme please contact:

This blog is one of a series focusing on the core elements of the bid put into central government for a Speed to Scale Region for the West Midlands focusing on the potential benefits and outcomes for jobs and economic growth. For an overview of the programme, please see the first blog or listen to the podcast. Further information is also available here.