Summary: We must create large numbers of jobs quickly if we are to recover rapidly from the pandemic recession already underway. Ideally these jobs should contribute substantially to our efforts to achieve zero carbon. One very promising and highly practical approach is to upgrade homes from gas or oil powered heating to highly efficient electrical heating using air source heat pumps. Such a move is essential if we are ever to achieve zero carbon. The number of jobs that would be created to carry out such a program will be several hundred thousand, spread throughout the country. With the prospect of 6 million unemployed in the near future in the UK such a program could help substantially to speed our recovery.
The British economy, like so many worldwide, has been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Projections for job losses in the UK are frighteningly high. At present we have 9.3 million workers on furlough, 2.5 million self-employed on income support and just under 3 million unemployed and receiving benefits. The total of around 15 million represents about 50% of our working population. Many businesses will come back to life gradually over the next few months and hopefully by the end of the year things will be looking up. However most projections suggest between 5 and 7 million as an unemployed baseline, in the region of 20% unemployment rate.
Not only is there a massive problem to face but we must not forget our other problem, climate change. The UK is committed towards achieving net zero carbon consumption by 2050 and there are many pressures to achieve that even earlier. The great part of our carbon consumption is from transport and from heating, both domestic and industrial. Other PCs on this website have already looked at what we need to do to move away from fossil fuel transport to electric systems. There needs to be an emphasis on reducing the weight and power demands of vehicles as we transition to all electric (non-hybrid) transport. You can read more about that here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2020/02/25/electric-vehicles-too-much-hype/ and here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2019/10/04/small-really-is-beautiful/. We will look here at what we might do to increase employment substantially as well as improving and reducing our carbon consumption.
Very often greening advocates emphasise home insulation as a highly desirable and straightforward way of improving domestic energy consumption. Although attractive in some ways, I believe there are major issues here, firstly because it does not eliminate fossil fuel consumption, simply reduces it. The houses that need most work are often occupied by less well-off families, and the work is typically some combination of cavity wall insulation, double glazing, roof insulation, boiler replacement etc. In many cases the cost of such work can be quite substantial, up to £20,000 per household. The big problem with that sort of programme is that it can be a massive inconvenience and upheaval for the family. It usually leaves the householder with a significant amount of remedial work such as redecoration to pay for. Better off households are much more able to cope with this. In practice a great deal will be achieved as buildings are replaced by modern better insulated designs using industrialised technologies. You can read more about how we might do that here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/06/22/solving-the-housing-crisis-a-fairer-deal-for-all/.
A rather different approach is to address directly the consumption of fossil fuel for heating. The best technology for achieving this is the use of air source heat pumps. These are driven by electricity and work rather like an air-conditioning unit in reverse, and indeed many can be driven in reverse to provide cooling in summer. The pump uses cold external air. A compressor then generates heat for the water/central heating supply. Gas consumption is eliminated, and the electrical power needed is about one third of the power otherwise needed to heat the house with gas. A number of manufacturers already offer such units but they can be expensive. The total cost including installation (which is pretty simple) can be around £10,000 per property. In principle they produce a significant saving in power costs although the current factor of 5 by which UK electricity costs exceed UK gas costs has to be resolved particularly as the wholesale price of electricity is now around £0.03/kwh. Most UK customers are charged today at four or five times that price.
The number of properties that need updating from gas or oil to electricity in total is about 30 million. If we allow ourselves to achieve that we are looking at replacing about 40,000 units per week every week throughout those 15 years. If we are to reach zero net carbon this work is not optional. It must be done. However there is no doubt it can be done much more cheaply than at £10,000 per property in volume.
We have learned that engineers in companies and universities throughout the UK were able to entirely redesign the traditional ventilators used widely in intensive care units to treat most acutely ill. This allowed the units to be produced much more efficiently and much more cheaply. A similar effort working on the design of air source heat pumps could undoubtedly bring the price right down. Domestic air-conditioning units are made in vast numbers and even quite substantial ones delivering 5 kW of cooling power are well under £1000. A major re-engineering effort on air source heat pumps combined with a manufacturing facility to produce them in volume could give a great reduction in the unit cost, just has already been achieved with PV solar panels.
The effect of such a programme on employment will be very great. Installation will require full-time jobs to be created throughout the country, not at all concentrated in the wealthier parts. Engineers will be required to carry out this work and may be trained relatively easily to carry out the work. These will not require lengthy training programs. There will also be a requirement for maintenance engineers although these units are very reliable. Prior to installation surveyors will be needed to discuss with the household where the units should be located (always on the outside of the house). There will also be significant new jobs involved in manufacturing 2 million of these units per annum, including the creation of major manufacturing plants which could well be located anywhere in the country. By emphasising installation in the poorer parts of the country first it will be clearer that it is everyone in the country who will benefit.
The net effect is that the programme to replace fossil fuel heating systems throughout the country would have a substantial effect on the carbon consumption in the UK. Such a program would place the UK in a strong position to export air source heat pumps widely particularly once manufactured to a good low price. The overall cost of such a program will be considerable but it is a straightforward investment in the UK infrastructure for the long-term benefit of the UK. It is likely to cost a further £150-£200 billion paid for with deficit funding directly as was done after the great financial crash of 2008. You can read more about why that is the right approach here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/11/02/you-need-to-balance-your-own-budget-but-the-government-doesnt-and-shouldnt/.