As part of the Whole Systems Networking Fund the "Zero-in on NI heat project", investigated the major barriers and opportunities towards heat decarbonisation in Northern Ireland. Four thematic workshops and a final seminar, as well as a series of focus groups with NI consumers, were conducted during the project. Over 120 stakeholders from almost 100 organisations attended the project workshops.

Authors: Dr. Inna Vorushylo, Dr. Stephanie Ogunrin, Dr. Ruchira Ghosh, Dr. Caterina Brandoni and Prof Neil J Hewitt

Northern Ireland has achieved its 2020 targets in the electricity sector ahead of time with 46.8% of its electricity demand supplied by renewable generators. When it comes to heat, the progress is less impressive – 68% of domestic heating is provided by oil and only around 2,500 customers use low carbon heat generators in their homes. In addition, 22% of consumers live in fuel poverty. Fuel poverty support programmes still propose the replacement of old oil boilers with new models or with gas boilers where a connection to the grid is possible.

Failure of the commercial RHI scheme and the knock-on effect of the closure of the domestic RHI scheme caused significant damage to the industry and to the reputation of low carbon heat technologies, leaving NI consumers without any explicit supporting mechanisms for low carbon heat supply. Decreases in carbon emissions from the heat sector are mainly achieved through switching from oil to gas heating. Gas infrastructure is under development in NI and promises to reach 60% of customers by 2022.

Zero-in on NI heat: project outline

During the Whole Systems Networking Fund project “Zero-in on NI heat project”, we investigated the major barriers and opportunities towards heat decarbonisation in NI. We conducted four thematic workshops and a final seminar, as well as a series of focus groups with NI consumers. Over 120 stakeholders from almost 100 organisations attended the project workshops. It was the first project since the previous Strategic Energy Framework (2010) development that investigated potential pathways for NI heat decarbonisation.

Ulster University has been the lead partner on this project with a Steering Committee gathering women representatives from key organisations of the NI heat sector, including Department for the Economy, the Utility Regulator, Renewable Industry Groups, system operators (NI Electricity Networks and SONI), charity (NEA NI), the Consumer Council and a public affairs consultancy (Stratagem).

Divergence between expert and consumer perceptions

A wide range of opportunities and barriers within technological, economic, and operational strands were identified. In addition to this, a perception analysis was carried out and it established six visions among expert stakeholders and five groups of perceptions among consumers that were focussed on heat decarbonisation in Northern Ireland.

Expert perceptions demonstrate different levels of support for various heat policy measures, in particular:  the role of government and institutional investors, alternative and novel business models, consumer engagement, protection of vulnerable consumers, and strict policy measures for heat decarbonisation.

The majority of consumers that participated in the study found a different range of actions acceptable to help the environment without the requirement for financial gain or support. These outcomes contradict the expert views that consumers in NI would be primarily driven by financial gain. A lack of independent information about current impacts and possible solutions was also highlighted by consumers.

A joined-up approach to heat decarbonisation

The NI heat sector remains highly carbon-intensive in 2020. Heat decarbonisation requires a joined-up approach across a wide range of government bodies, industry, consumer representatives, and every citizen in NI.

Previous evidence of expert disagreement towards technological options for heat decarbonisation is further supported by this study. However, most NI experts believe that a combination of solutions is required to meet the heat decarbonisation challenge.

Region-specific heat maps indicating optimal technological solutions and associated infrastructural planning, underpinned by strong policy support are among potential solutions to achieve synergy among sectors in NI and drive its energy transition.

There is a consensus among stakeholders that a robust heat decarbonisation policy is required in NI. Clear leadership, consumer motivation and education, local demonstration programmes, financial support, and unlocking demand-side flexibility are among the measures that need to be implemented to help get heat decarbonisation onto the right track.

About the authors:

Dr. Inna Vorushylo, Lecturer in Energy Markets and Energy Storage, Ulster University and principal investigator.

Dr. Stephanie Ogunrin, Research Associate in Energy Modelling, Ulster University.

Dr. Ruchira Ghosh, Research Associate in Acceptability of Low carbon Technologies, Ulster University.

Dr. Caterina Brandoni, Lecturer in Energy, Ulster University.

Prof Neil J Hewitt, Professor of Energy and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Ulster University.