At the risk of receiving hate mail, can I suggest that rising energy costs are good for us? Can I ask you to desist from moaning when you next look at your gas or electricity bill? And can I say that the recent 20% price increases are a small price to pay if they help save the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
No, I didn’t think I could!
Allow me, then, to express my sentiment more precisely: Rising energy costs are good in a way that we will be more inclined to appreciate in the future. The faster prices rise for carbon fuels, the more urgent will be the development of renewable technologies. And the more households have to spend on energy, the more carefully they will think about the ways they source their electricity and heat.
These are inconvenient truths at a time of increasing living expenses, not just for gas and electricity but also the fuel we pump into our cars and the food we put on our tables. But in the same way that high fuel prices have motivated people to switch from petrol- to diesel-engine vehicles, the soaring cost of gas and electricity will encourage homeowners to consider solar thermal, solar PV, and ground-source and air-source heat pumps. These are the technologies of the future and environmental evangelists will proclaim, with a justifiable sense of urgency, “The future starts today!”
A start has already been made with renewable technologies, but it’s not much more than that – on the path of technological development, there’s a long journey ahead. Yes, solar PV can generate more electricity than your home needs, enabling you to sell the surplus back to the National Grid, but it doesn’t make economic sense to have an electric-powered heating system if you’re on a gas network – so you still need a boiler. And yes, ground-source heat pumps can keep homes warm – but not always warm enough if they are poorly insulated or draft-proofed (and not all homes have gardens suitable for their ground loops) – which brings us back to boilers.
Boilers are still the most appropriate way of heating most of our homes, and will be for the foreseeable future. Modern condensing boilers are now just about as energy efficient as they will ever be, but there are up to four million elderly and inefficient G-rated boilers out there, each one burning 25% to 40% more gas than a modern boiler. The Energy Saving Trust has estimated that if all G-rated boilers were replaced with A-rated models, CO² emissions would be cut by the equivalent of 830,000 households. This would also save each of these households about £370 per year.
So before we let those dazzling solar panels blind us to less sexy technologies, let’s look first at boilers. The government is set to spend up to £360m per year on the Feed-In-Tariff for solar PV, compared to the £50m it put into the recent boiler scrappage scheme (enough to update 125,000 boilers). A renewed boiler scrappage scheme (with strict qualifying criteria, of course) wouldn’t be as trendy as solar subsidies, but for now it would do just as much good.