When it was founded in 1857, one of the objectives of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland was to give intelligent and experienced individuals from a wide range of backgrounds the opportunity to meet regularly and compare notes on the most pressing technical issues of the day. Over 165 years later members still meet and exchange observations on matters scientific and technical.

For several years one of the most frequent topics of conversation has been the current state and future prospects of the UK’s energy infrastructure. A recent call for evidence on heat resilience and sustainable cooling from the Environmental Audit Committee at Westminster rekindled the discussion.

It was noted that energy policy has been parcelled out in fragments to different interest groups with little apparent common ground between them. For instance, there is a recognised need to change domestic heating from burning oil and gas alternatives. The three frontrunners are the use of heat pumps in some form, the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel, or if neither of these is suitable, the fallback position will be some form of direct electric heating. This third option is never spoken about and doesn’t feature in any planning documents, but it is the obvious reaction at a personal level: when your boiler breaks down the short-term solution is the dig a fan heater or oil-filled radiator out of a cupboard and plug it in. Our infrastructure is not able to cope with that sort of behaviour at a national level.

Heat pumps, probably the most sensible and achievable solution to the domestic heating challenge, get a bad press. Public acceptance, which is already slow, is being held back by government policy. Heat pumps require electricity to drive them but one unit of electrical energy costs four to five times more than an equivalent amount of gas. The UK does not have the most expensive electricity in Europe nor the cheapest gas but the ratio of one to the other is the highest of all European countries, mainly due to tax policy.

If we were serious about the adoption of heat pumps as a means to reduce our carbon emissions then we would encourage and dissuade people from alternative solutions that were unattractive. In fact the reverse is true: government tax policy is holding back the adoption of an essential alternative to carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

We can’t expect the privatised businesses, including those owned by foreign governments, to invest in long-term infrastructure in our national interest, unless of course it coincides with their own interests. The need for a strategic body, independent of the government, addressing the whole energy sector is clear.

Decision-making should be driven by engineering principle for addressing problems with rational, tested, costed solutions. This is the essence of large infrastructure project management but it seems to be absent from the current decision-making processes in Government.

By Andy Pearson

Published in the Herald January 12th 2024

Andy Pearson is a mechanical engineer working in Glasgow and is Past President of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland.

Posted in Opinion

Cite Top