Gas boiler ban: how to make sure everyone can afford low-carbon heating

Jul 2, 2021

4 min

Dr Ahmad Beltagui


Most of us only think about central heating when it stops working or when the fuel bills arrive. So reports of an impending ban on gas boilers in the UK – and news that green alternatives such as heat pumps can cost over £10,000 – might have been a nasty shock for many.


Most UK households rely on gas boilers, which are more efficient than ever, but still burn fossil fuels. As a result, domestic heating accounts for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions and almost half of energy consumption nationwide.


Tackling climate change means changing how we heat our homes. But this is possible without turning warmth and comfort into unaffordable luxuries. Our research has looked at how business models can break this trade-off between people and the planet. One involves reimagining heating as a service.


When buying a boiler, a customer typically pays someone to buy and install it. They then sign a contract with an energy company to provide the fuel and find another service provider to fix the boiler when it breaks down. Wouldn’t it be simpler to sign one contract with one company that could guarantee a steady supply of heat?


A manufacturer would be responsible for installing the heating system and for ensuring it works. Since the manufacturer would be paid for delivering heat, you wouldn’t be billed for repairs or have to pay steep upfront installation costs – you’d simply have to keep up with flat monthly payments. By aligning the objectives of all parties, “heat as a service” allows the risks and rewards of investing in new technologies like heat pumps to be shared.


Fuelling poverty


Low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps can go a long way to achieving net zero targets. Unlike a boiler, heat pumps move heat from warm to cold spaces rather than generate it, operating in a similar way to air conditioning.


Heat pumps run on electricity and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions if their power comes from low-carbon sources. Waste heat from sewage plants and other facilities can even be redirected to supply home central heating systems with the right infrastructure, such as district heat networks. But most UK homes have gas on tap, and new heating technologies are expensive to install and manage. Much of the required infrastructure needs to be funded.


Heat pumps decarbonise home heating by replacing fossil fuel burning boilers. I AM NIKOM/Shutterstock


Over two million households in England suffer from fuel poverty. This means that paying fuel bills would leave them with nothing left over for food and other necessities. More efficient, low-carbon heating can bring those bills down, but when faced with the decision to heat or eat, is it fair to expect people to invest in expensive technology? If these technologies are unaffordable, can we hope for the needed revolution in domestic heating?


The slow adoption of rooftop solar panels and electric cars demonstrates what a hard sell these technologies can be for cash-strapped consumers. Technology is not enough. Instead, we need to change the business logic for bringing technology into our homes.


Heat as a service


Digital technology has made it easier for almost everything we use, from music to cars and clothing, to be delivered as a service. Record stores selling albums now compete with online streaming services which offer a vast library of music ready to be played with a monthly subscription. Taxi drivers and car dealers have had to adjust to ride-sharing services and even fast-fashion companies are now threatened by online rental services, which help old clothes find new purpose.


Businesses offer software as a service and even manufacturing as a service, which take away the need for upfront investment and unexpected bills and allow customers to access and pay for what they need with a single fee or subscription. Heat as a service does something similar by cutting out the complexity of installing, maintaining and fuelling a boiler or heat pump.


In the winter of 2017, over 100 UK homes were offered a heat plan, which guaranteed an indoor temperature for an arranged monthly fee. Customers often struggle to keep track of how much they spend on heating, so the plan offered some peace of mind. The trial involved collaboration between local authorities, an energy company and a boiler manufacturer, plus digital tool providers that helped monitor and control the temperature. Most participants found they were more comfortable and were more likely to consider low-carbon heating on its own, and particularly as part of an arrangement like heat as a service.


Paying for heating technologies that are kinder to the planet is likely to be too expensive for lots of people. Relying on households to make these preparations on their own would also be disastrous for decarbonisation. A recent report by the International Energy Agency forecasted that less than 5% of the total emissions reductions needed to reach net zero by 2050 can be expected to come from such behaviour changes among the general public. Rather than expecting households to buy heat pumps, states and energy utilities should offer them low-carbon heating as a service.


This article was co-written by Ahmad Beltagui, Andreas Schroeder, and Omid Omidvar, of Aston University
Connect with:
Dr Ahmad Beltagui

Dr Ahmad Beltagui

Senior Lecturer

Dr Beltagui is an experienced researcher with expertise in Advanced Services, Innovation & Design Management and 3D Printing.

ManufacturingManagementInnovation3d PrintingServices

You might also like...

Check out some other posts from Aston University

2 min

Aston University researcher takes on leadership role within biomedical engineering

Dr Antonio Fratini is the new chair of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers Biomedical Engineering Division It is one of the largest group of professional biomedical engineers in the UK The specialism merges professional engineering with medical knowledge of the human body, such as artificial limbs and robotic surgery. An Aston University researcher has been given a leading role within the biomedical engineering sector. Dr Antonio Fratini CEng MIMechE has been elected as the new chair of the Biomedical Engineering Division (BmED) of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), one of the largest groups of professional biomedical engineers in the UK. The IMechE has around 115,000 members in 140 countries and has been active since 1847. Biomedical engineering, also known as medical engineering or bioengineering, is the integration of engineering with medical knowledge to help tackle clinical problems and improve healthcare outcomes. Dr Fratini previously served as chair of the Birmingham centre of the division for five years and as vice-chair of the division for one year. His research includes responsible use of AI, 3D segmentation and anatomical modelling to improve surgical training and planning, motor functions and balance rehabilitation. He leads Aston University’s Engineering for Health Research Centre within the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and has vast experience in the design, development and testing of new medical devices. Currently he is the University’s principal investigator for the West Midlands Health Tech Innovation Accelerator and he has a growing reputation in the UK and internationally within the biomedical engineering profession. He said: “Biomedical engineering is continuously evolving and our graduates will create the future of health tech and med tech for more effective, sustainable, responsible and personalised healthcare. “I am very honoured of this appointment. This three-year post will be a great opportunity to further develop the biomedical engineering profession worldwide and to show Aston University’s commitment to an inclusive, entrepreneurial and transformational impact within the field.” Professor Helen Meese, outgoing chair of the division, said: “I am delighted to see Antonio take on the chair’s position. He has, over the years, contributed significantly to the growth of the Birmingham regional centre and has actively supported me throughout my tenure as chair. I know how passionate he is about our profession and will undoubtedly continue to drive the division forward over the next three years.” Dr Frattini was presented with his new title on 20 June at the IMECHE HQ at 1 Birdcage Walk, London during the Institution’s technology strategy board meeting. For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Nicola Jones, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44) 7825 342091 or email: n.jones6@aston.ac.uk

3 min

Aston University researcher develops method of making lengthy privacy notices easier to understand

It has been estimated it would take 76 days per year to fully read privacy notices New method makes notices quicker and easier to understand by converting them into machine-readable formats Team designed a JavaScript Object Notation schema which allowed them to validate, annotate, and manipulate documents. An Aston University researcher has suggested a more human-friendly way of reading websites’ long-winded privacy notices. A team led by Dr Vitor Jesus has developed a system of making them quicker and easier to understand by converting them into machine-readable formats. This technique could allow the browser to guide the user through the document with recommendations or highlights of key points. Providing privacy information is one of the key requirements of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the UK Data protection Act but trawling through them can be a tedious manual process. In 2012, The Atlantic magazine estimated it would take 76 days per year to diligently read privacy notices. Privacy notices let people know what is being done with their data, how it will be kept safe if it’s shared with anyone else and what will happen to it when it’s no longer needed. However, the documents are written in non-computer, often legal language, so in the paper Feasibility of Structured, Machine-Readable Privacy Notices Dr Jesus and his team explored the feasibility of representing privacy notices in a machine-readable format. Dr Jesus said: “The notices are essential to keep the public informed and data controllers accountable, however they inherit a pragmatism that was designed for different contexts such as software licences or to meet the - perhaps not always necessary - verbose completeness of a legal contract. “And there are further challenges concerning updates to notices, another requirement by law, and these are often communicated off-band e.g., by email if a user account exists.” Between August and September 2022, the team examined the privacy notices of 50 of the UK’s most popular websites, from globally organisation such as google.com to UK sites such as john-lewis.com. They covered a number of areas such as online services, news and fashion to be representative. The researchers manually identified the notices’ apparent structure and noted commonly-themed sections, then designed a JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) schema which allowed them to validate, annotate, and manipulate documents. After identifying an overall potential structure, they revisited each notice to convert them into a format that was machine readable but didn’t compromise both legal compliance and the rights of individuals. Although there has been previous work to tackle the same problem, the Aston University team focused primarily on automating the policies rather than data collection and processing. Dr Jesus, who is based at the University’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences said: “Our research paper offers a novel approach to the long-standing problem of the interface of humans and online privacy notices. “As literature and practice, and even art, for more than a decade have identified, privacy notices are nearly always ignored and ”accepted” with little thought, mostly because it is not practical nor user-friendly to depend on reading a long text simply to access, for example a news website. Nevertheless, privacy notices are a central element in our digital lives, often mandated by law, and with dire, often invisible, consequences.” The paper was published and won best paper at the International Conference on Behavioural and Social Computing, November 2023, now indexed at IEEE Xplore. The team are now examining if AI can be used to further speed up the process by providing recommendations to the user, based on past preferences.

2 min

Aston University optometrists take up global industry association roles

Professor Nicola Logan has been named a global myopia management ambassador by the World Council of Optometry Dr Debarun Dutta is the new academic chair of the British Contact Lens Association Aston University School of Optometry is ranked in the top 10 for research in the Complete University Guide 2024 Professor Nicola Logan and Dr Debarun Dutta from Aston University’s School of Optometry have both been appointed to major roles within optometry industry associations. The School of Optometry is regularly ranked highly by both leading national ranking publications and in annual student-led surveys. This includes a top 10 ranking for research and a top five ranking for graduate prospects in the Complete University Guide 2024, and first in the UK for student/staff ratio in health professions (optometry) in the Guardian University Guide 2024. Professor Logan, professor of optometry and physiological optics and deputy head of the School, has been named a global myopia management ambassador by the World Council of Optometry (WCO). She is one of four new ambassadors named by the WCO in collaboration with CooperVision, a leading myopia management company. WCO and CooperVision have developed a myopia management online tool which reflects WCO’s global standard of myopia care. In March 2024, Professor Logan presented her inaugural lecture at Aston University on her research into the nature of myopia, the growing evidence base on strategies to control eye growth in children and translation of these findings to clinical practice. She said about her appointment as an ambassador: “I am thrilled to be appointed as the global myopia management ambassador for the World Council of Optometry. This role provides me with a valuable platform to advance the recognition of myopia as a significant public health concern and to facilitate the translation of research into effective, evidence-based clinical practice strategies for children with myopia.” Dr Dutta, a lecturer in optometry, has been appointed the new academic chair of the British Contact Lens Association (BCLA). He will lead the BCLA’s academic output, including offering guidance and advice to the BCLA council about scientific and academic elements of contact lenses. Dr Dutta will initially work alongside current academic chair, Professor James Wolffsohn, Aston University’s head of optometry, who is currently on sabbatical from the University, before taking over when Professor Wolffsohn steps down in 2025. Dr Dutta said: “I am hugely excited at the prospect of delivering academic provision of the British Contact Lens Association, with a specific focus on a highly prestigious conference programme as we grow our reputation as a global leader in contact lens and anterior eye education. This is a rare opportunity to work alongside our association members, fellows, trustees, global ambassadors and volunteers inspiring a new era for the BCLA, and to support our growth and development ambitions through delivery of educational activities within the contact lens and anterior eye specialism.”

View all posts