There’s no denying that most of us are more interested in discussing the weather than the state of the economy. Storm clouds or a brisk breeze get us exercised in a way geopolitics rarely can. Around where I live, though, the hottest topic of conversation is not the wind or snow but the temperature indoors: how warm, or otherwise, our houses are.

I doubt there’s anyone in our village who thoughtlessly switches on the central heating, or turns on the hot tap for longer than needed. Baths are rationed, drawers are stuffed with jumpers and socks that Roald Amundsen would have envied, and visitors arrive in layers, rightly prepared for the worst. A friend dropped by the other evening, but did not remove her padded winter coat until she saw we had lit the fire. Another kept on her woolly hat throughout an afternoon, even though the fire was blazing.

Those of us thirled to oil measure it out as if it were cough mixture. It's a country thing, I now realise. Living without a gas supply means most of us rely on oil; a handful are heated by stored gas, even fewer are entirely electric, and a tiny number – we’re talking single figures – have installed heat pumps in their modern or modernised homes.

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Even though we are miserly, some of us lie awake wondering if there’s enough oil to tide us over until the next delivery, and hoping there won’t be unexpected guests, which means turning the central heating on as if it were a regular occurrence.

The Herald: Those of us thirled to oil measure it out as if it were cough mixtureThose of us thirled to oil measure it out as if it were cough mixture (Image: free)

All this makes us sound unbearably tight-fisted, and maybe we are. Have you seen the price of oil? Yet one of the reasons we are so frugal is because we know how environmentally unfriendly it is. We are conscious that it’s incumbent on us to use as little of it as possible. I doubt the same can be said of households where there is never any fear of the supply running out, nor the shock of the cost of refilling a tank. But increasingly, of course, we’re also aware that we are living on a fuel whose days are finite.

That fact was driven home hard by the Scottish Government’s recent Heat in Buildings Bill consultation, which closed to submissions earlier this month. This document is driven by the government’s legal requirement to make Scotland zero-carbon by 2045. At the moment, it’s estimated that around 89% of our homes and 49% of non-domestic heating comes from what is termed “polluting heating systems”. At the same time, 55% of homes are poorly insulated, and therefore energy inefficient.

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The government has stated its intention to ban all polluting heating systems by 2045, and to introduce a law that obliges all homeowners, by 2033, to make sure their homes meet an acceptable standard of energy efficiency.

There are concessions for those in remote areas where electricity supplies are occasionally cut off because of weather. In these instances, it will be possible still to use polluting heating backups until the emergency has passed. There is also vague mention of loopholes for those unable, for whatever reason, to adapt in time. Nobody can argue with the need urgently to wean us off fossil fuels. Just as vehicles are heading inexorably towards 100% electric, so must homes.

Ultimately, if the government gets its way everyone will be heated in future by heat pumps, heat networks, or super-efficient electric storage heaters. Their homes will be draught-free, with underfloor heating and loft insulation, and where possible cavity wall insulation or similar.

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So what’s not to agree with? Well, for the 125,000 of us in Scotland who depend on oil, quite a lot. For some time now, there has been talk of replacing oil with HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil). At the moment, it’s more than twice the cost of kerosene. It is also, however, far cleaner. A recent, albeit limited experiment in a Cornwall village showed that replacing kerosene with HVO cut emissions by 88%, while adapting a boiler for HVO costs only around £500.

Nevertheless, as this is not considered a sufficiently clean source of energy, it will not be acceptable come 2045. Yet if the government would change its position (and bring HVO fuel duty rate in line with that of kerosene, thereby making it affordable), that would offer one reasonable and fair alternative. Unless that happens, those of us who use oil will have no option but to convert to a heat pump or other emission-free system. For old properties such as ours, which was built in the 18th century, the extent of work required to install a pump will cost an estimated £22,000, and that’s before the redecoration it will entail.

I can’t speak for others – although you get an idea when visiting them, as draughts tickle your ankles – but after having all windows and doors replaced, and the loft insulated, we are as vacuum-packed as possible short of replacing our lathe and plaster walls. Yet will a heat pump generate enough warmth? Anecdotal evidence suggests that with these systems, many older houses never reach a comfortable temperature. So will we need to supplement it with electric heaters, or underfloor heating, or simply invest in more thermals?

Understandably there is great consternation about what the 2033 and 2045 deadlines will entail, especially among the older or more vulnerable. Nation-wide, 125,000 anxious householders is negligible to a government intent on meeting its environmental targets. But this cannot and must not be achieved by leaving tens of thousands of people obliged to fork out a small fortune to help them reach their goal.

Many will not have that kind of money, and will feel obliged to sell – getting less for their property, no doubt, because of the heating upgrade required. Some won’t be in a position to move, and will dread being given ultimatums they cannot meet.

The government’s consultation document talks of ensuring “a flexible, fair and just transition”. If it is to be a truly just exercise, it must involve site visits to all of us who are reliant on oil and stored gas. The viability of replacing these old systems with eco-friendly energy must be assessed, and professional advice must be supplemented by generous grants.

Speaking personally, I can guarantee these experts a friendly reception although, if they arrive at short notice, I cannot promise it’ll be warm.