What Part Will Heat Pumps Play in Achieving a Net-Zero Britain?

Heat pumps are a key low carbon heating system that will be vital in helping to decarbonise heat in our homes over the next decade. It is crucial that we address the challenge of installing these systems at the pace and scale necessary for meeting the UK’s net-zero targets. Millions of homeowners will have to change the way they heat their homes. Around 15% of energy is currently being used to heat our buildings and homes. This means that there are big carbon savings to be made if we change to low carbon renewable forms of heating.

Although heat pumps have been around for a long time take up has been slow due to issues with installation costs and practicalities. Most homeowners are not familiar with the technology so need to be able to access expert, impartial advice on how to make heat pumps cost effective for them. There is an abundance of information available now to help energy consumers understand the benefits of heat pumps.

Heat pumps are becoming more popular as people look for ways to decarbonise the heating of their homes. They work by extracting energy from the ground, air or water, and transferring this heat energy from one area to another in the same way that refrigerators or air conditioning units operate. They do still consume a significant amount of electricity. For example, for three units of heat energy produced by a typical system, around one unit of electrical energy will be consumed. If renewable electricity is used the system becomes carbon neutral. Heat pumps can be installed in most property types, but many people are still unsure about their benefits. Change needs to happen because if heat pumps do not become a normal fixture in people’s homes, the UK will not meet its net-zero targets. If we were to replace all oil boilers and half of our existing gas boilers with an air source heat pump, we could reduce our national CO2 emissions by 8%, or nearly 29 million tonnes.

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An important milestone on the UK’s path to net-zero emissions by 2050 was reached on Easter weekend when the electricity system was the greenest it has ever been. Low carbon energy sources made up almost 80% of power, there was no coal generation on the grid and just 10% of power came from gas-fired power stations. Several factors contributed to this achievement. It was a sunny, windy day on a bank holiday when factories were closed and coupled with a lockdown it was the perfect day to make the most of the UK’s renewable energy sources.

However, there is still a long way to go to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Key to meeting the net-zero challenge for homes is the scaling up of the supply chain. Firm targets and long-term investment from both the government and the private sector are essential to provide the confidence in demand which will allow the supply chain to invest.  

In November 2020, one of the headline ambitions in Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution was the commitment to a new target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028. The government has committed to bringing an end to installing gas and oil boilers in new build homes by 2025. At the same time the government’s independent advisors on the climate change committee (CCC) has recommended a UK target of one million installations a year by 2030. A steeper deployment trajectory could result in 5.5 million heat pumps in homes cumulatively by 2030. The CCC also predicts that that around a fifth of heat will be distributed through heat networks by 2050. All of this is a sizeable ambition, and we will need collective action from policymakers, landlords, local authorities, businesses and homeowners to get us there. 

The government also raised the interim greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030 to a 68 per cent reduction on 1990 levels, up from 57 per cent before. This brings the interim target in line with the UK’s net-zero by 2050 goal, but this also means that the 2030 challenge is increased by 20%.

The CCC said:

“We firmly believe that we need to make the move away from fossil fuel boilers attractive, simple and fair for all.”

In order to speed up the installation of heat pumps across the UK financial incentives will be required for both social and private sector homes. Though the Green Homes Grant was blighted by problems and was closed to new applicants after only a few months it did at least raise the awareness of heat pump technology. The grant provided vouchers of up to £5,000 for primary measures including insulation and low carbon heating systems.

However, many people may not realise that there has been funding in place to help with the cost of installing heat pumps since 2011, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). To access the benefits of the RHI you need to be able to afford the upfront investment for the installation of a heat pump. If you join the RHI scheme, you receive a quarterly tariff payment for every kilowatt hour (kWh) of renewable heat you produce. This is paid quarterly over 7 years and goes a long way towards covering your initial outlay. The RHI scheme is due to close in March 2022. This scheme does not suit everyone of course and the government is said to be looking at hugely expanding an existing scheme called Clean Heat Grants to boost the take up of low carbon alternatives to traditional heating systems. Currently the Clean Heat Grant scheme is due to be launched in April 2022, run for two years and offer grants of up to £4,000. It has been rumoured that Boris Johnson would like to quadruple the scheme’s funding to £400m, extend its duration to three years and increase its starting point to £7,000.

It has also been said that the government are preparing a big advertising campaign for the new scheme sometime in the autumn to encourage people to replace their gas boilers, in the run up to the COP26 climate change conference in November.

If the UK is to reach its net-zero target by 2050 there needs to be a clear phasing date for fossil fuel heating which is in line with the phasing date for gasoline and diesel vehicles. This will support the renewables sector as well as give individuals and markets a clear signal of direction. With the lifespan of a traditional boiler being around 15 years, it would suggest that the latest the date should be set is 2035.

At this time less than 250,000 of the 29 million UK households are equipped with heat pumps. In 2019 just 27,000 heat pumps were installed in sharp contrast to the 1.7 million replacement boilers. The CCC has said that if the UK is to meet its ambitious net-zero targets by 2035, up to 15 million homes would need to be fitted with heat pumps or hybrid heat pumps by 2035.

Decisions made by the government now will have far-reaching consequences for the UK. The government is due to publish its long-awaited Heat and Buildings strategy this year and there is no time to lose on this vital policy area. The strategy needs to provide confidence and clarity around making heat pumps available to everyone and to stimulate the market investment that will make this happen.

If we are to have a heat pump revolution, we will also need greater investment and commitment to green jobs. Thinktank, Onward, estimated in a recent study that while the need to retrofit homes and ensure low-carbon domestic heating will create around 1.1 million new jobs by 2030, only 5,700 workers a year are currently training in these areas. This indicates a serious shortfall for what is required.

Around 23% of fuel-poor households in England live in social housing and for many other householders, the expense of a heat pump is prohibitive. This has led to 20 organisations including the Energy saving Trust to call for a Fair Heat Deal that will help give people on low incomes access to heat pumps and ensure that they are affordable to install and run.

We all stand to benefit from a future where we enjoy warm, well-insulated homes heated by low-carbon heating system technology. Heat pumps can and must help to lead the way in accelerating the UK’s transition to net-zero.

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