Fresh perspectives

New voices of the built environment

No more hot air.

Let's banish gas boilers.

LET'S TALK

POSSIBILITIES

If our industry is serious about tackling the climate emergency, gas boilers have got to go.

2019 was a remarkable year – often not for the right reasons. Temperature records were broken in 29 European countries and the Arctic sea ice reached its second lowest point on record. Yet we also saw (and are still seeing) a surge of public outcry, with record levels of participation in climate crisis rallies and high-profile announcements from business leaders.

The built environment is responsible for 40 percent of the UK’s carbon footprint, so what we all collectively do – as developers, architects, engineers and contractors – has a real influence on the impact to our planet.

The mantra used to be: what’s good for business is good for society. It’s now the other way around: what’s good for society is good for business.

Action over words

Most of us know the urgency: that, to fulfil the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, all buildings must operate at net zero carbon by 2050 and all new buildings should target zero emissions by 2030.

The industry has never wanted change and impactful action as much as it does today. Sustainability is no longer the tick box exercise that it was often viewed as in the past.

As engineers, we need to consider the impact on our environment in every step of our designs and, with that in mind, there is no space for gas boilers. Natural gas is never going to get greener. The carbon emitted by burning gas hasn’t changed since it was first used in homes in the early 1960s. Electricity, on the other hand, has been getting greener for years and the latest projections by the National Grid suggest it’s only going to get better. For 2020, the National Grid has forecast that the average carbon intensity of electricity will be 136g CO2/kWh. This means that using a heat pump will reduce CO2 emissions by more than 80 percent compared to a gas boiler. There would even be a 3 percent saving in energy costs, assuming a gas boiler is 80 percent efficient (which is generous – we’ve checked!).

Fast forward to 2030 and it’s a 90 percent carbon saving.s service-led model opening up further investment into environments specifically catered to our individual mindset needs; in fact, if you refocus the emphasis of that mantra to: “the space you need for the time you need it”, it opens up a discussion about personalisation.

The scenario

So let’s say we decided to banish the gas boiler. What happens? Well, it’s a nuanced situation, with a lot to weigh up.

For example, there’s the emergence of hydrogen boilers and the capacity of existing electrical infrastructure to consider. Bigger energy users are more subject to changes in electricity costs (of course, if managed well, this can result in significant savings).

Also, the availability of green electricity ebbs and flows, varying the grid’s carbon intensity and therefore how ‘green’ it is at that point in time; a volatility that offers cost and carbon advantages, as long as building intelligence is in place. These are all complex considerations, but they’re nothing a bunch of problem-solvers can’t easily work through.

There are also some clear perks on top of the climate motivation. For example, there would be no need to provide a gas pipelines and cities would have significantly better air quality thanks to less gas being burned.

It's history

We are in the midst of the climate crisis and it’s business-as-usual that has allowed society to end up here. Now is the time for decisive, positive action – for putting our climate impact at the heart of every design discussion and decision. For me as an engineer, the first step should be consigning gas boilers to the history books.

The mantra used to be: what’s good for business is good for society. It’s now the other way around: what’s good for society is good for business.