Alternative Energy Sources

Alternative energy sources

By Laura Rettie, Personal Finance Journalist. Last updated 9th March 2023.

Laura Rettie

With energy prices up 120% since 2016, explore if now's the time to invest in greener and possibly cheaper alternatives to power your home, with our helpful guide.

Why should I consider an alternative to gas central heating?

Because gas boilers aren’t environmentally friendly

Firstly, gas boilers emit a large amount of CO2, so you may already be considering looking into greener alternatives.

Because you may be forced to by the government

Despite gas central heating being the leading method to heat our homes, current government plans are to stop installing gas boilers into new build homes from 2025 - less than two years away.

There are also plans for a ban on the installation of fossil fuel boilers to follow (current expectations are for this to happen in the mid 2030s). So it’s likely we’ll see more households switching to greener heating sources sooner rather than later.

Because gas prices are volatile

Over 70% of people in the UK have gas central heating, but gas prices are unpredictable and can be impacted by climate change, politics and global demand.

Because you have no other choice

For some people, having a gas boiler isn’t an option. Older, rural houses aren’t connected to the main gas grid and have never installed gas central heating. Many residents living in older or rurally based houses rely on oil-based systems to heat their homes.

How can I heat my home if I’m not connected to the mains gas?

Around four million households in the UK aren’t connected to the mains gas grid. This means that gas central heating, which many of us take for granted, isn’t an option. Here are some of the most common ways houses not connected to the main gas grid heat their homes;

Oil central heating

Unfortunately, oil central heating is no more green than gas, and whilst costs are generally slightly lower, prices can be just as unstable. But for many rural households who aren’t connected to mains gas, oil central heating has commonly been the most viable option for heating homes.

So how does oil central heating work? Oil boilers work in a similar way to gas boilers, only instead of using a fire fueled by gas to heat the water used in your radiators, taps and showers, oil (usually kerosene) is used as fuel.

There are some other key differences between gas and oil central heating. The most significant difference for those with oil boilers is that you must store the oil.

Households with oil central heating will have an oil tank on their property. In some cases, these will be underground, but for most homes with oil heating, the oil tank will be in their garden.

When you have an oil tank, you’ll need a supplier to deliver oil whenever you need the tank refilled. Depending on how much oil you use, this could be once a year, or for larger households, this can be two or even three times a year.

One of the significant downfalls of oil heating is that you must keep an eye on the oil level in your tank and remember to order a refill. Running out of oil can be really inconvenient, especially in the middle of winter. On the other hand, with oil central heating, you’re not always tied into a contract, so you can easily shop around for the best price when you need to refill the tank.

The government is currently planning to phase out fossil fuel heating for “off-gas-grid” homes from 2026. So it’s likely that you won’t be able to get a new oil boiler fitted after this, though (at the time of writing) no final plans have yet been announced.

LPG central heating

LPG central heating, or Liquid Petroleum Gas central heating, is another option for rural homes not connected to mains gas. LPG boilers work in much the same way as oil and gas boilers, but the fuel used is liquified petroleum gas rather than kerosene, like with oil boilers or natural gas used with gas boilers.

Like oil central heating, LPG central heating systems require you to keep a tank on your property (most commonly in the garden) to store the fuel. As with oil, you need to keep an eye on the tank and order refills as required - a supplier will come and refill your tank.

Like with oil, LPG boilers will be impacted by the proposed government plans to phase out high-carbon, fossil fuel heating for homes that aren’t connected to mains gas from 2026. This means that after this date, you’re unlikely to be able to replace your LPG boiler with a like-for-like system and will likely need to invest in an alternative heating system.

Electric heating systems

For some households not connected to the mains gas, electric heating systems have proved an effective way to keep warm during the colder months.

Whilst running costs can be more expensive than other heating options (mainly because a unit of electricity is more expensive than gas or other fuels), electric heating systems can be cheaper to install and maintain.

There are a few different types of electric heating, such as:

  • Electric radiators - many houses that rely on electricity to heat their home will have separate radiators plugged into the mains in each room. You’ll also need a way to heat your water with these systems.
  • Electric central heating with an electric boiler - electric boilers work similarly to gas combi boilers. Cold water from the main water supply goes into the boiler, which heats the water (using a similar technology to a kettle) for radiators, taps and showers. Like with gas boilers, some electric boilers will heat water on demand, and others will have a storage tank to keep hot water in.
  • Storage heaters - these look a bit like radiators. They draw electricity, usually overnight, and store it as heat for the following day. These can be extremely useful if you’re on a tariff where you’re charged less for electricity during off-peak hours - such as Economy 7. As with electric radiators, you’ll need to ensure you have a way of heating water.

Previously, electric heating was considered inefficient for larger spaces, but technological advancements have meant that electric central heating has become a much more viable option for many households.

If you have electric radiators or storage heaters, you may also need a way to heat water. Some people will combine these heaters with an electric boiler used only for water supply but not for wet radiator systems or instant water heaters and electric showers.

What sustainable options are there to heat my home?

If you’re looking to replace your current heating system, you may be able to reduce costs and do your bit for the planet by picking a greener alternative.

Most of these options can be quite expensive to install initially but could end up saving you money in the long run.

Heat pumps

Heat pumps are becoming an increasingly popular way to heat homes in the UK and have been adopted by the government as the go-to suggestion for environmentally friendly heating.

Heat pumps work by transferring heat from outside that’s already present in the environment into your home. They use electricity to do this, but the amount of electricity required is significantly lower than the amount of heat they produce, making them extremely efficient.

Various types of systems are available, including:

  • Air source heat pumps - Also known as air-to-water source heat pumps, they transfer heat from the air outside to the water used in your radiators, taps and showers.
  • Ground source heat pumps - These heat pumps transfer heat from the ground outside to the water used in your radiators or stored in a tank for your taps and showers.
  • Hybrid heat pumps - This refers to a heating system that uses both a heat pump and another heat source, such as a fossil fuel boiler. They’re typically used in large homes where a heat pump alone may not be sufficient.
  • Air-to-air heat pumps - Air-to-air heat pumps are air conditioners; they transfer heat from the air outside to the air inside your home. They can also be used to cool the air inside your home, though they’re uncommon in residential properties in the UK.
  • Water source heat pumps - These types of heat pumps transfer energy from a water source near your home to provide heating and hot water. They’re unfortunately only useful for homes that live close enough to a suitable water source (such as a river, lake or loch).
  • Solar-assisted heat pumps - These types of heat pumps combine an air-to-water heat pump with solar panels; they basically use the heat from the air and energy from the sun to heat water.
  • Cascaded heat pumps - rather than being a type of heat pump, cascaded heat pumps refer to systems where more than one heat pump is required to meet a house’s heating requirements.

Solar thermal panels

Solar thermal panels work in much the same way as solar PV panels (the solar panels used to produce electricity). Instead of turning the heat energy from the sun into electricity, they’re used to heat water stored in a hot water cylinder, which is used in your radiators, taps and showers.

Currently, for most households, solar hot water systems only reduce the need for other boiler systems (such as gas, oil or electric) and not replace them. They have the ability to provide around 60% of the average home's hot water requirement.

Infrared heating panels

Infrared heating panels are a relatively new technology that uses electricity to produce infrared energy, which in turn heats your home. More common heating solutions currently used in homes are convection heaters (such as radiators or fan heaters), which means they heat the air around them, which then rises, pushing the colder air down to be heated.

Infrared heaters, however, heat surfaces in the room, which absorb and then re-emit the heat into the room. Because of this, infrared heating panels work best when fitted to the ceiling, as they’ll then heat the floor below, and the heat will then radiate back upwards. Though they are also effective when fitted to walls.

Infrared heaters are efficient because 100% of the electricity they use is turned into heat, however, they may not be the most cost-effective way to heat your home. This is because electricity is generally more expensive than gas per unit.

They work well as an additional heating source, or in areas of your home that doesn’t currently have central heating.

Biomass boilers

A biomass boiler works in much the same way as a gas or oil boiler in that they burn fuel to heat water. The main difference is that biomass boilers use sustainably sourced wood pellets as fuel rather than fossil fuels.

Whilst burning wood will still release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it’s a significantly lower amount released than fossil fuels.

Biomass boilers are able to fulfil all your heating and hot water requirements, however, they are significantly larger than conventional fossil fuel-burning boilers.

To be able to automatically feed the boiler with wood pellets, you’d need an automatic feed hopper which will require even more space.

Many biomass boilers can run on logs or wood chips, which can be extremely useful if you’re able to source them cheaply.

Unfortunately, biomass boilers are relatively high maintenance because you’ll need to make sure it’s topped up with fuel and you’ll also need to empty the ash from the boiler on a monthly basis.

Electric alternatives

A lot of the greener alternatives for heating use electricity. However, some of the ways electricity is produced release significant amounts of CO2 into the air.

Luckily, in recent years more sustainable electricity supplies have become increasingly accessible. The government and energy companies are working to remove the burning of coal as a source of electricity by 2024.

Coal previously made up the majority of the UK’s electricity supply, although in recent years renewable energy has made up over 40% of the national electricity supply.

If you’re looking to make your energy supply more climate-friendly, here are a few options that could help:

Renewable energy tariffs

Whilst a huge portion of the UK’s electricity supply comes from renewable sources, if you’re looking to use 100% renewable energy, you’ll need to look at your tariff and where your current electricity supplier sources their electricity.

There are several suppliers that now only offer 100% renewable electricity, whereas other suppliers offer separate tariffs for 100% renewable energy.

There has previously been a bit of controversy around renewable energy tariffs, because all homes get their electricity from the national grid, so the electricity coming into a home may not actually be 100% renewable.

What these tariffs mean, though, is that for every kWh of energy you use, the energy company ensures that they supply that much renewable energy to the national grid; this could be through renewable energy sources they already own or through buying energy from other renewable sources.

Solar panels

The solar panels we use for electricity, technically called solar PV panels (photovoltaics), are a way of generating your own renewable electricity.

They work by capturing the sun’s energy and converting it into electricity. Although the initial investment of solar panels can be relatively high, they can end up reducing your electricity bills significantly.

Solar panels produce electricity during daylight hours but not at night, so you’ll still need to supplement your electricity supply via an energy provider overnight.

During the day, solar panels can create more electricity than you can use, which will then be exported to the grid. Many energy suppliers will buy this electricity, so even if you’re not using the electricity, you can actually get paid for it.

If your energy supplier doesn’t offer to buy any electricity you export, you could get a PV diverter installed, which can power the immersion heater in a hot water tank, helping to reduce your heating bills.

Even if solar panels don’t meet all of your electricity needs, they can help to significantly reduce the amount of electricity you need to buy, helping to reduce your monthly energy bills.

Wind energy

Wind turbines use the power of the wind to create electricity. When the wind blows, the blades of the wind turbine spin and this movement is used to produce electricity. Domestic wind turbines can be either roof or pole mounted.

Roof-mounted turbines are generally much cheaper to install but less efficient in producing electricity. Pole-mounted wind turbines generate more electricity but can also be expensive to install and maintain, depending on how much electricity you’re looking to generate.

Wind turbines are most effective in areas away from obstructions and aren’t always suitable in urban areas; you’ll likely need planning permission to install a free-standing wind turbine on your property.

Hydroelectric systems

For a select few households in the UK, a hydroelectric system can be an extremely effective way of generating electricity without harming the environment.

Hydropower works by converting potential energy from streams or rivers into kinetic energy, which is then used to move turbines in the water to make electricity.

Hydroelectric systems require the source to be close to where the power will be used. The efficiency of a domestic hydroelectric system will depend on how quickly the water flows and the height of the water.

Though hydroelectric systems will produce energy all through the day and a decent-sized system will produce enough energy to power the average household, they’re not without their drawbacks - mainly the need to have a flowing river or stream on or near your property to be able to install it.

In addition to this, in summer months, hydroelectric systems aren’t always as effective, so you’ll likely need a backup source of electricity, just in case. You’re also likely to need planning permission to install a micro hydro system.

Government schemes

If you’re thinking about making the move to greener energy sources, there are a number of government schemes available to help with the costs of installing a new system.

You can find out more about the government’s environmental schemes on the Ofgem website.

The information provided does not constitute financial advice, it’s always important to do your own research to ensure a financial product is right for your circumstances. If you’re unsure you should contact an independent financial advisor.