Heating your home with renewable energy

About 80% of homes in England, Wales and Scotland are heated using natural gas. However, it seems the days of gas-fired central heating are numbered

Solar photovoltaic panels on a house roof

New homes will no longer be built with gas boilers from 2025 and people are increasingly looking to cleaner, greener energy sources for their homes – which is a good step towards reaching the net zero goal for 2050

Here we’ll look at some of the leading alternatives to gas.

Heat pumps

From April 2022, the government will be offering subsidies of £5,000 for homeowners in England and Wales to make the switch from gas boilers to heat pumps.

There are three common types:

  1. Air source heat pumps use a fan to gather heat from the air, which is then ‘pumped’ up to a higher temperature by a compressor. This heat is then used for household heating such as radiators and underfloor heating, and – in the case of air-to-water heat pumps* – the remainder can be stored in the hot water cylinder.
  2. Ground source heat pumps harness heat from the ground using underground pipes.
  3. Hybrid heating systems combine gas boilers with heat pumps, meaning you can switch without having to replace your boiler. It’s estimated that this can reduce your boiler usage by up to 80%.

Heat pumps aren’t cheap to install, which is why subsidies can help.

The most common type which is suitable for most households is the air-to-water heat pumps. These can cost between £7,000 and £13,000. You also need a place outside, either on the ground or wall-mounted, with enough space around it for air to circulate.

The price of ground-to-water heat pumps varies, but will typically cost between £20,000 and £30,000. And you need outdoor space to install them, which needs to be accessible to digging machinery.

While the upfront cost may seem off-putting, these systems should save money on your household bills over time. And while they need electricity to run, this is fairly nominal, and easily offset by the heat produced.

In addition, air-to-water and ground-to-water heat pumps qualify for the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. This provides payments to those in England, Scotland and Wales who use renewable energy to heat their homes. Payments are made quarterly for seven years – but you must apply by 31 March 2022.

*You can also get air-to-air heat pumps, which provide household heating, but not hot water. However, these aren’t eligible for RHI payments.

Solar panels

A common sight on UK houses, solar panels – AKA photovoltaics (PV) – capture energy from the sun, which is converted into electricity. This can be used to power your home, or exported to the grid, for which you’ll be paid.

This is a truly renewable energy source. And while they work best in blazing sunshine, they still generate electricity without direct sunlight, and on cloudy days.

One of the main considerations is that you need a lot of space, usually on the roof. A typical system will take up about 15-20 sq m of roof area.

The average cost of this sized system is about £4,800. But prices are dependent on the size of panels and difficulty accessing your roof, so installation costs vary. You can use the Energy Saving Trust’s solar energy calculator to get an approximate cost for your property, as well as likely annual benefit, lifetime benefit and CO2 savings.

By and large, you don’t need planning permission for solar panels. However, it’s always best to check with your local planning office. Restrictions are likely to apply if you live in a conservation area, national park or listed building.

Solar water heating

Similarly, solar water heating systems – AKA solar thermal – harness energy from the sun, but instead use it to heat water. Having a solar water heater for domestic use can help to cut your energy bills, and carbon footprint.

However, these systems aren’t efficient enough to replace your current system. In the summer months, they can supply about 90% of your hot water, but this drops to about 25% in the winter, so you’ll need a boiler or immersion heater as backup. You also need a big space to keep the required hot water cylinder.

Prices vary from about £3,000 to £5,000, but will roughly half the portion of your energy bill used to heat water.

Biomass boiler

Biomass is a renewable energy source, usually made from burning wood, plants, or other organic matter. For example, household food waste can be made into biomass.

While it’s renewable, burning anything does produce carbon dioxide. However, it produces considerably less than burning fossil fuels, such as gas or oil. It’s also offset by the carbon absorbed while the plants were growing. So it’s sustainable, as long as new plants are grown to replace those used for fuel.

Using a stove, you burn logs, chips or pellets. This can heat a single room, such as with a standard wood-burning stove. Alternatively, it can be fitted with a boiler, and connected to your central heating and hot water system. Compared with an old electric heating system, this can save around £800 a year.

You need a decent amount of space, though. Wood-burning biomass boilers are larger than gas or oil boilers. Plus you need storage space for the fuel, and a flue.

If you’re looking to install a biomass boiler, it’ll probably set you back between £9,000 and £15,000. This is for a system which automatically loads pellets, and includes a fuel store, flue and installation. The biomass fuel itself is an ongoing variable cost.

Again, savings are variable, so it’s worth doing your sums. However, a biomass boiler may qualify for RHI payments, provided you source fuel from an approved sustainable supplier.

Wind turbine

Wind turbines are becoming a more common feature of the UK landscape, and are a completely clean energy source. The stronger and more frequent the wind, the more the blades turn, and the greater the electricity generated. And you can use a battery to store energy to use on calm days.

Obviously you need a lot of exposed space if you’re thinking of installing one. While it’s possible to get building-mounted turbines which generate about 1-2kW, these are small and not terribly efficient. If you want to generate 5-6kW, you need a free-standing pole-mounted turbine. For the equipment and installation, these cost between £23,000 and £34,000.

On average, this will lead to a £280 saving on your energy bills. You may also be able to export surplus energy to the grid, which could earn you a further £235. While it’s likely to take a long time to recoup the installation costs, you’ll be saving 1.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

If you live in England or Scotland, you may not need planning permission to install one, but be sure to do your homework. You will certainly need planning permission if you’re putting up a wind turbine in Wales or Northern Ireland.

Can I get insurance for my renewable energy source?

You should always check your home insurance policy, but it is possible to cover most energy sources with Admiral’s buildings insurance. Just make sure it's: 

  1. Permanently installed
  2. Included when you calculate your home’s rebuild cost

The average heating system installation costs used in this guide are taken from Energy Saving Trust and are correct as of November 2021.

Flexible home insurance from Admiral