Heat pumps in the UK: state of the conversation

In recent years, heat pumps have dominated the heating-decarbonisation conversation, in no small part due to Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic championing of the technology in late 2021. If homes in the United Kingdom could transition from gas to electric heating and, in particular, install heat pumps (ground or air source), carbon emissions would be significantly reduced – moving the nation closer to its legally-binding net-zero 2050 climate target. Two years on, the government’s effort to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028 appears to have ‘stalled’ at best and ‘failed’ at worst. Despite having almost 30 million households, the UK can only boast around 280,000 heat pumps.

This naturally raises the question, why? Why does the UK appear unwilling or unable to transition into this energy-efficient, environmentally kinder, and (ostensibly) cost-effective alternative to gas heating?

Following this most recent two-year heat pump ‘experiment,’ the conversation is defined by two camps: those that believe heat pumps are a realistic alternative for the UK and those that do not.

For those that advocate heat pumps, the barriers to adoption are identified as cost (the units are more expensive to purchase and install than their gas counterparts), lack of accredited installers (only ~23% of heating professionals are fully trained to install air source heat pumps), regulatory uncertainty (the shifting and short-termism of governmental schemes inhibit investment), and awareness (home-owners have not been adequately informed about the technology and its benefits).

For those that decry the large-scale adoption of heat pumps, on the other hand, the cited barriers stem predominately from the UK housing context and the fact that many are poorly-insulated Victorian-era homes. For example, heating efficiency (heat pumps warm poorly insulated homes more slowly than gas), running cost (on a per unit basis, electricity is a more expensive fuel than gas), and premature technology (in the future, cheaper and more efficient pumps will become available).

According to the 2021 census, 74% of households in England and Wales have mains gas as their only heating source, and 84% of homes are on the gas pipeline network – while only 9% of UK households use electric heating. Furthermore, the gas industry has a history of monopoly and subsidy extending back to the 1940s, while ‘climate change policy costs’ place a higher tariff on electricity than gas. One could argue that heat pumps remain at something of a relative disadvantage so long as gas is cheap and heats many homes more efficiently. It bears mentioning that many occupants report a high level of satisfaction with their existing gas heating and are reluctant to exchange it for ‘unproven’ technology.

Reflecting on the state of the conversation in this way is helpful. Even if all the issues raised by heat pump advocates were addressed – i.e., if heat pumps were cheaper, there were adequate installers, the government scheme was simple, stable, and long-term, and the general population ‘believed’ in the technology – the contextual and historical realities would remain. Gas would still be cheaper and heat many homes more efficiently, given the nature of their construction. Consequently, perhaps something like a ‘complementary’ approach to heat pump roll-out is appropriate: heat pumps in all new builds and social housing on the one hand and an insulation program to address the nature of the existing stock on the other.

Forthcoming CaCHE research aims to generate reliable findings to these very questions.


Date: April 21, 2023 12:44 pm


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