Fixing our boilers will dwarf cost of HS2. Hitting climate change targets may force us into building district heating systems across Britain. Britain’s biggest challenge in reaching the government’s net-zero emissions target by 2050 and cleaning the air in our cities is not eliminating the internal combustion engine but finding a way of heating our homes without causing more environmental damage. The statistics are jaw-dropping. In 2018 greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation — from businesses, industry, cars, planes and agriculture — all fell, yet emissions from “residential combustion” rose by 4 per cent. While it is becoming increasingly clear how we might generate electricity or get around in the future, no one quite knows what to do about our boilers, so for the most part ministers simply don’t want to talk about it. There is no plan. The silver bullet everyone is holding out for is hydrogen. Instead of putting natural gas into our boilers, firing them with hydrogen would mean the only waste product was water. It would involve replacing pretty much every boiler in the country and some of the infrastructure that feeds them. This is achievable but there are two problems. First, it won’t come cheap: the likely cost is up to £100 billion. Second, and perhaps more worryingly, it turns out we still don’t have a sustainable way of making hydrogen gas in the first place. Scientists are confident they can invent one using carbon capture and storage within a decade or two but given that they have been making similar promises for years that doesn’t inspire much confidence. The other solution would be to get rid of boilers altogether — at least in urban areas — and to replace them with district heating systems a bit like Pimlico’s. These might be powered by electricity, by hydrogen if we can pull that off, or by waste heat from factories or server farms, which are large clusters of computer servers. One pilot scheme in Islington will use waste heat pumped up from the Northern Line Underground tunnels as a source of heat. Indeed, one of the attractions of such networks is that you can simply swap out the central generator if a better technology materialises.
Times 21st Feb 2020 read more »