Network problems: The peculiar case of home heating in Northern Ireland

April 15, 2018

Home heating in Northern Ireland is very different from most other parts of the UK. Firstly, a combination of cold weather and low incomes mean that fuel poverty (defined as those spending >10 per cent income to warm their homes) is higher, whilst the lack of an extensive gas network means that a wider range of fuels and technologies are used. Most households still rely on oil – usually delivered by road and stored in a tank in the garden – as their sole source of central heating.

In terms of decarbonisation this means it may present a different challenge to mainland Britain, where the hydrogen economy is suddenly back in vogue. Plans for a low carbon Liverpool-Manchester industrial cluster using hydrogen as a fuel seem to be taking shape and the Leeds H21 project to replace the city’s natural gas network with hydrogen has received government funding for a feasibility study.

Although we are a long way away from producing low carbon hydrogen in big enough quantities to entirely replace the methane in Britain’s natural gas system, there are advantages to moving in this general direction as it would be perhaps the least disruptive ways to decarbonise heat. The pipe network exists and utilities are already in the process of developing gas boilers that can run on hydrogen (or even hybrid boilers that can use methane or hydrogen).

Britain could be ideal for such a switch, but this is not the case in Northern Ireland. The cost of rolling out a gas network and developing hydrogen production infrastructure would probably be too great in such a sparsely populated nation.

With a much less developed natural gas network and fewer homes with gas boilers, houses in Northern Ireland are heated by a patchwork of often unsatisfactory, inconvenient and polluting methods, compared with Britain. For example, my own parents in Co Down to this day have not installed central heating. When the house gets cold they turn on one of the old electric heaters scattered around the house.

Moving out of the family home to study in Belfast had different challenges. Living with six other 19-year-old lads in a shared house meant it was a miracle if one of us remembered to call the ‘oil man’ to have them come round and fill the tank in our back yard when it was running low. Rural households are doubly vulnerable as deliveries of oil on unsalted roads become almost impossible in the event of severe ice and snow.

By way of comparison, in the latest census 62 per cent of households reported relying entirely on oil for heating in Northern Ireland, whereas the percentage for England and Wales was just four per cent (see table below). For Northern Irish consumers this can be expensive and inconvenient, whilst also having high associated carbon emissions. Though the use of gas has expanded since 2011 to around 200,000 households, it is still firmly behind oil in usage, and doubts remain about whether expanding the gas network is a good idea or whether it risks lock-in to a high carbon technology and a time when decarbonisation should be a priority.

Northern Ireland England and Wales
Type of central heating Count Percent %
Oil 437,269 62.2 4.1
Gas 120,956 17.2 78.7
Multiple types 94,410 13.4 4.1
Electric 24,671 3.5 8.1
Solid fuel 18,120 2.6 0.7
Other 4,093 0.6 1.6
None 3,766 0.5 2.7

My brothers, commonly for Ireland, built their own homes from scratch in the countryside and were therefore able to install ground-source heat-pumps, which can be a good, reliable low carbon option.But they can also be expensive and are only suitable for certain properties with sufficient surrounding land.

Other technologies are used to varying degrees, even some slightly surprising ones. In a throw-back to an earlier age, it is still not unusual to see stacks of peat for sale at petrol stations for people to burn in their fireplaces at home.

There is no easy option for cleaning up home heating anywhere in the UK, but especially so in Northern Ireland.

After having grown up and attended university in Northern Ireland, my history of renting in different parts of Britain has given me a wide-ranging experience of the sorry state of our housing stock. Living in the ‘nicer’ parts of England (Oxford, Cambridge, Islington) often meant a draughty bedroom and paper thin windows, but – with the exception of one year in a bedsit in Oxford with a wholly inadequate electric storage heater – always with the convenience of gas central heating.

However, no matter where I have lived and worked across the UK for the last 20 years, the only common denominator has been inadequate insulation and/or inefficient heating systems. Without a silver bullet in terms of low carbon fuels or technologies, investments in energy efficiency remain the one investment certain to pay off. The Committee on Climate Change reports that progress made in reducing emissions from homes has stalled over the last five years, but energy efficiency measures and improved insulation remain, as ever, the ‘low hanging fruit’ in decarbonisation plans, but fruit that remains unpicked.

In our 2015 report, Warmer Homes, Policy Exchange pointed to the link between fuel poverty and carbon emissions: “fuel poor households typically live in very inefficient, older dwellings, meaning they are needlessly wasting energy and increasing carbon emissions.”

As per capita carbon emissions are higher in Northern Ireland and fuel poverty is 42 per cent compared with 12 per cent in Britain, home heating must be a social and environmental priority for the region, regardless of when a devolved government can be formed.

This article was originally published on the Business Green website

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