Could Heat Pumps Replace Our Gas Boilers?
The fossil fuels used in our homes for heating, hot water and cooking are responsible for more than a fifth of the UK’s carbon emissions and are one of the greatest contributors to pollution in our everyday life. In total 85% of homes use natural gas boilers at the present time so replacing them could be monumental for the environment.
For this reason, in the spring of 2019 the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Philip Hammond announced that ‘fossil-fuel heating systems’ would not be installed in any domestic new build properties from 2025 as part of the Future Homes Standard. These systems include gas and oil boilers. This decision was part of the government’s plan to tackle climate change and growing carbon emissions in order to reach their net-zero emissions target by 2050.
Boris Johnson, the current British Prime Minister, further developed this plan and announced in November 2020 a ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’.
The policy which bans all fossil fuel heating systems in new builds could be extended to all new gas boilers in homes from the mid-2030s. As it stands now, only heating systems installed in new builds from 2025 will need to be low carbon. It is encouraging to see the government taking steps to reduce the number of new gas boilers installed but it’s thought to be unlikely that gas boilers will be banned altogether in the immediate future.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that the UK should ban all fossil fuel boilers from 2025. The agency has proposed 400 steps in a special report to reach net-zero and this is just one of them. The UK government is expected to reveal its own strategy in the next month, before the crucial Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26) starting at the end of October. It is thought that the new strategy could spell the end of the great British gas boiler once and for all.
The current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, has predicted that the cost of electric-powered heat pumps will halve if the government backs them as a replacement for gas boilers which is a clear sign that the government will endorse this technology later this year.
When challenged as to whether the cost of the technology would make it a feasible solution on a large scale, the Business Secretary said:
“Once you’ve made a very clear indication as a government that that is the way you want to go, suppliers will invest in producing heat pumps and will be able to produce them at a much cheaper cost so that the retail price would be considerably lower than £10,000.”
The heat and buildings strategy is due to be published in the Autumn and is expected to lay out a detailed timeline for the removal of boilers from not only new-build homes but existing housing stock, to help decarbonise our homes. It is anticipated that this long-awaited policy paper will include a replacement for the current Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which is due to close in March 2022.
The Renewable Heat Incentive gives financial support to people who use certain renewable technologies such as heat pumps, to heat their homes. The payments help you offset the cost of installing and running your new heating system. You could cover your initial outlay with the quarterly instalments paid to you over a 7 -year period. It has been reported that ministers are considering replacing the RHI with a £400m boiler scrappage scheme, which would offer £7,000 grants to homeowners when the RHI scheme closes.
Though the government is continuing its trials on hydrogen boilers as an alternative to our current gas boilers, heat pumps have emerged as the clear choice for individual households. They are deemed to be the most viable option at this time. Heat pumps are already popular despite them being a lot more expensive than gas boilers at present. A good heat pump installation will tend to have a longer lifespan than gas boilers and many offer cooling in the summer months as well as heat during the summer.
According to the Heat Pump Association, at least 36,000 heat pumps were installed in homes and businesses across the UK last year and this number is expected to almost double this year to between 60,000 and 70,000. However, this figure will need to rise tenfold within the next 7 years to meet the target set by Boris Johnson last November to install 600,000 a year by 2028. It has been estimated that gas systems need to be replaced in an estimated 23 million homes in the UK.
Many homes need extensive insulation work before heat pumps can be installed which is an additional though necessary expense. Heat pump technology is improving all the time and the more popular they become the lower the upfront costs will be.
In simple terms, a heat pumps works like a reverse fridge, by extracting energy or warmth from the outside air, the ground or nearby water, and concentrating the heat before transferring it inside.
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Richard Lowes, a heating expert at the Regulatory Assistance Project says:
“It requires a mindset change. Rather than relying on a powerful burst of fossil fuels to quickly heat a cold house, it is more important for heat pumps to run continuously – albeit at a very low level – to gently top up the heating to an even temperature. Your fridge doesn’t blast cold air constantly. But it keeps your food cool by adjusting to very slight increases in temperatures, and only when necessary.”
There are 3 main obstacles that the government will need to overcome if heat pumps are to go mainstream; the high upfront cost; generally low levels of home insulation; and the negative word of mouth stories created by faulty installations.
Richard Lowes says:
“Heat pumps are rarely faulty. So, when you hear horror stories, it’s usually due to bad advice or poor installation. It’s a myth that heat pumps can’t work in old or terraced houses – they just might require a little more work. Even if you can’t manage to do internal wall insulation, a heat pump can still work – you just might have to get a bigger one.”
It’s not just heat pumps that work best in homes which are well-insulated, but it particularly applies to them because they provide a steady, gentle source of heat to maintain an even temperature rather than the blast of fossil fuels that draughty buildings need to warm up.
Possibly the greatest challenge faced by the the home heating revolution is the large numbers of trained installers that will be needed to carry it out.
Mark McManus, the managing director of heat pump maker Stiebel Eltron UK says:
“If there’s any problem in the industry, it’s probably the skills gap. There are a small number of well-trained installers in the UK. But once this skills gap closes there is likely to be better service and greater competition, which could cause costs to fall further.”
The Heat Pump Association has set up a new programme in order to bridge the skills gap which in theory could train up to 40,000 installers a year.
Business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng has welcomed this move which he sees as critical in turning up the heat on the government’s low-carbon ambitions and creating more jobs within the green economy.
“There is a transition, and that’s something we’re focused on, and we want to try and help people make that transition.”
There are many advantages to installing a heat pump including amongst others, lower running costs, less maintenance, better safety and most important of all lower carbon emissions. If there’s the political will to instigate a heating revolution and it’s backed by robust training programmes, we should see heat pumps becoming widespread across the UK.