There is a revolution happening. The way in which we own assets and pay for goods – unchanged for centuries – is being turned on its head.
Ownership is waning and the heyday of pay-as-you-go services is coming to an end. We now overwhelmingly lease cars instead of buying them, pay for communications as a service rather than for each call made or email sent, and open up our homes to strangers to make some extra cash during holidays abroad.
These changes came from relatively underwhelming beginnings. Who would have predicted the jump from a pay-as-you-go Nokia 3310 to the smart devices we can’t take our eyes off today? Systems once boring and functional have morphed beyond recognition, creating whole new sectors of innovation.
Yet one sector has been overlooked, seen as too complicated and held in stasis by a powerful incumbent industry: the way we heat our homes.
It can be hard to rouse excitement over heating, save for a week or two of midwinter chill. But keeping warm at home accounts for one of the largest domestic outgoings, and around 20 per cent of national carbon emissions.
The current set-up stands alone in its antiquity. Paying per unit of fuel consumed, with no real awareness of how much the bill will be until it comes through the letterbox (or inbox), is a backwards way of providing a basic element of a comfortable home life.
Imagine if we paid for internet by the byte, still forked out 10p to send a text, or didn’t know how much petrol we had used until a monthly bill arrived.
Fortunately, change is coming. With a potential market of close to 30m houses and legally-binding carbon emission targets in its sight, British industry is looking to modernise how we heat our homes.
We have already seen sparks of the revolution in innovative metering systems, made by the likes of Nest and Hive. But this only the start.
Shifting towards heat as a service, whereby homes pay a fixed cost for, say, a guaranteed temperature during certain hours in the winter months, would free up the concerns that many have around keeping warm. It would also allow bundling of other services that take the stress out of broken-down boilers and frozen pipes, and would make it easier to apply discounts to help the most vulnerable in society.
But why stop there? The same logic that has led people to lease rather than own individual items, cutting down on maintenance costs, can be applied to the 22m gas boilers in homes up and down the country, which sit dormant for the vast majority of the time.
There are a multitude of new ways to keep warm, negating the need for most us to buy and maintain a fairly complicated and expensive bit of kit.
One of these is heat networks, where hot water is pumped around a number of homes from one centralised source. Common in other countries, this is a great way to modernise our heating systems, saving both energy and carbon emissions in the process.
Other low-carbon options include switching the gas grid to hydrogen, or sucking heat from the air or ground and pumping it into buildings.
Curbing the amount of energy we waste from our homes would represent another huge leap forwards. The UK’s housing stock is among the leakiest in Europe, with the majority of new homes being built to lower standards than we might expect.
We generate a vast amount of heat only for it to escape through roofs, walls and windows. This extra demand not only represents a huge amount of wasted money, but also adds to our chronic trade deficit with fossil-fuel rich countries, and increases the risk of another cold-related scare, as seen during last year’s “Beast from the East”.
For the first time in decades, there is momentum for change in the heating sector – momentum that will fuel innovation and give the UK a head start on a nascent global industry.
Far from being dull, how we heat our homes is on the verge of kick-starting another revolution.