Making the case for heat pumps, with the Heat Pump Association

Kicking off a new series of articles on the future of heat in the UK, Graham Wright, Chairman of the Heat Pump Association, makes the case for why heat pumps should be a major player in the way we heat our homes.

Kicking off a new series of articles on the future of heat in the UK, Graham Wright, Chairman of the Heat Pump Association, makes the case for why heat pumps should be a major player in the way we heat our homes.

Momentum is gathering for the need to change the way we heat our buildings, and there has never been a better time to reinforce the message about heat pumps and their importance for the future of heating in the UK.

The ‘Future Homes Standard 2025’, announced in the Spring Statement, will set minimum environmental standards for all new housing, including a commitment to removing traditional fossil fuel heating systems.

The next five years has therefore become a key period in which clear policy is needed on what exactly ‘low carbon’ means to ensure that housebuilders are clear as to what action they need to take.

The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) net zero report highlights that a net zero target for UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is achievable and will deliver on the UK’s Paris Agreement commitments. The Heat Pump Association (HPA) agrees with the CCC that reaching this target is feasible with already available technologies, such as heat pumps.

The government has indicated a strong desire to phase out fossil fuel heating, but how this is to be achieved needs to be decided upon and communicated now if ambitions for 2025, 2035, and 2050 are to be met.

Heat pumps are one of the few low carbon heating systems available right now, but currently there is a lack of clear policy and a misguided belief that there will be other ultra-low sources from bio/fossil fuel mixes or hydrogen (which itself currently relies on fossil fuel energy to produce).

Developing the heat pump market

In October 2016, the CCC released a report titled Next steps for UK heat policy, in which it stated that, to decarbonise the heat supply, heat pump installations would need to run at over one million per year from the mid-2030s.

However, the heat pump market has plateaued at around 20,000 installations per year in recent years. In order to close this gap during the next decade, we need to see a steep rise in heat pump deployment in new homes, homes off the gas grid. and in commercial buildings.

Deployment in these areas could also help to overcome issues of technology familiarity that currently constrain take-up, and it provides an opportunity to build a strong supply chain capable of installing effective systems with minimal disruption.

Heat pumps are a cost-effective solution when displacing oil heating or resistive electric heating. In newbuilds from the mid-2020s, heat pumps can be designed as part of an integrated system in well-insulated buildings and can perform better and be sized for lower peak heat demand, with commensurately lower capital costs.

Costs of heat pumps in new properties compare more favourably with gas heating when including the cost of connecting to the gas grid, estimated at £350-1,080 per domestic connection, and higher for some commercial or industrial units.

Heat pumps are currently suitable in around 10 million properties on the gas grid (although loft top up will be required in some cases). A further 10 million or more could be made suitable through insulation (solid wall, with some remaining cavity wall and loft insulation), and other heating system upgrades.

Low-carbon options to provide electricity for heat pumps are available, although widespread deployment would bring significant challenges for the electricity system management on both a daily and seasonal basis. The off-grid segment is the priority area to begin building a heat pump market and supply chain, together with installation in newbuild properties.

Installer training and consumer awareness

One of the key messages from another CCC report, UK housing: Fit for the future?, was the need to support and train designers, builders, and installers. The chopping and changing of UK government policy has inhibited skills development in housing design, construction, and in the installation of new measures. Currently, there is a lack of awareness of low carbon heating among both end-users and installers.

Greater take-up of low carbon heating and insulation will need higher standards to be enforced, particularly during installation. This is likely to require a larger number of skilled installers who will take time to train.

Consumers must see real benefits in moving from fossil fuel heating systems to low-carbon heating systems. People generally demand comfortable homes and workplaces at an affordable price which in most cases are currently achieved by burning gas. Emissions through the burning of fossil fuels will not fall unless low-carbon heating systems are attractive to consumers, either by improving comfort levels or saving them money.

A nationwide training programme to develop high professional standards and skills would pave the way for widespread implementation of low-carbon choices in the building and heat supply trades. Installers will play a vital role in raising awareness among potential customers.

Gaining more knowledge of the technology will place an installer in an advantageous position over competitors by being able to advise on, and install, heat pump technology. The current workforce needs to acquire new skills if we are to get enough heat pumps installed. Training is widely available, and the HPA is looking at setting up its own training courses in the future.

Policy developments

Nationwide rollout of heat pumps will only be realised with strong government leadership at both local and national levels. The HPA aims to work with all stakeholders to develop effective policy, starting with the upcoming Part L review and consultation on the regulatory framework for the future of heat to phase out high carbon fossil fuels. This Part L review needs to make sure low flow temperatures are mandatory in both newbuilds and at critical intervention points for retrofit.

Under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), both residential and commercial properties can upgrade their heating systems while mitigating the cost. For every kWh of renewable energy you use to heat your property and domestic hot water, the government will pay you back.

Heat pumps are categorised as a renewable energy source by the Energy Saving Trust and are a relatively straightforward way to install renewable energy into many domestic properties. However, with the RHI scheme due to close at the end of 2020, it is crucial that a policy that is as effective, if not better, is brought in to replace it, such as up-front grants for installing heat pumps.