The role of policy in creating opportunities for alternative futures in heat decarbonisation

The role of policy in creating opportunities for alternative futures in heat decarbonisation

Dr Kat Lovell, SPRU, University of Sussex
Prof Tim Foxon, SPRU, University of Sussex

This paper analyses key decision-making processes relating to alternative pathways for heat decarbonisation in the UK. Decarbonising heating is a key element of reaching the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. Currently space and water heating in the UK is heavily reliant on fossil fuels with approximately 85% of households using natural gas for heating (BEIS, 2018). With the extent of the changes needed to reach net zero and the long equipment and infrastructure lifecycles involved, key decisions to set up pathways to decarbonising heat across the UK are needed within the next 5 years (CCC, 2016). BEIS (2018) is, at a national level, currently developing policy plans to make these decisions by 2024. However, there are significant policy challenges in planning and making decisions for the complexity of intertwined changes in heating technology, user behaviour, business models (and regulation) of installation and characteristics of buildings that will be involved in changes to infrastructure systems that reach across regions and nations as well as into people’s homes and day to day living.

As part of the Operationalising Socio-Technical Energy Transitions (O-STET) research project, this paper analyses actors’ perceptions of UK developments for heating decarbonisation, focussing on understanding key decision points. This research draws on analysis of key policy documents, interviews with diverse actors across the sector (11) and a workshop with key policy actors to investigate structuring of policy decisions. This study highlights the different framings that actors hold of the challenges and opportunities around heat decarbonisation challenge and how they construct key decision-points. There is some evidence that a dominant framing, of a one-time national decision centred on the future of the gas grid and choosing between hydrogen and electric futures for heating at a national level, has potential to break down. A key factor challenging this framing is the increasing concern with user needs and acceptance. This shifting of focus within policy circles highlights both the need for socio-technical understanding and the difficulties of collecting and working with evidence that extends beyond techno-economic understanding.

To address these challenges, this study applies and explores the benefits of the socio-technical concept of branching points in understanding ways in which decisions are and can be structured in addressing heating decarbonisation. Foxon et al. (2013) define branching points “as key decision points at which choices made by actors, in response to internal or external stresses or triggers, determine whether and in what ways the pathway is followed.” A branching point approach highlights that the ways in which technology decisions are structured and navigated for decarbonisation is politically mediated (Rosenbloom et al., 2018). This branching point analysis of decisions in UK heat decarbonisation highlights the usefulness of this concept for reviewing and structuring decision-making processes. In the stakeholder workshop, the branching point concept was combined with a framework from Cherp et al., (2018) to form the basis of co-development process for structuring decisions (combining techno-economic, sociotechnical and political perspectives) that was trialled – this approach shows promise for supporting complex decision processes for energy system decarbonisation and the research continues to develop this process further.

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