Heat Pumps: The UK's pathway to Net Zero

It’s certainly a fitting time of year to discuss heating. Temperatures have already dropped significantly and many of us have switched on the heating to warm our homes.  Unfortunately, in most cases, this heat doesn’t come from a low carbon source. Instead, it is provided by high carbon fossil fuels which are installed in 84% of homes across the country. With this figure in mind, the explanation behind the 37% of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to buildings is as clear as it will ever be. We are not doing enough to take advantage of the low carbon solutions available to us and unless we see a change, things will only ever get worse, or at best, stay the same. The concern takes even more precedence when we consider that right now, we are building a record number of homes in the UK. If we build more inefficient homes and heat them the same way, it will exacerbate a problem that is already bad enough.

It was encouraging to see that the Government has recognised the role electric heating can play in new builds within the recent Future Homes Standard consulted on earlier last month. This aligns well with the legislation of net zero emissions by 2050 which can only be achieved by addressing all areas of the economy. As such, The Future Homes Standard is expected to utilise ground-breaking levels of efficiency to ensure that the homes we build now are fit for the years to come. As anticipated, this new standard will mandate the end of fossil fuel heating in new homes by 2025. However, whilst electric heating solutions such as heat pumps are already established as a low carbon solution to heat these new homes, deploying this technology in existing homes is easier said than done. There has been relatively low uptake across the UK so clearly there are barriers that need to be addressed, and strong and realistic policies will be required to knock them down.

We are unlikely to see any changes in performance of the product itself given that heat pumps are already a mature market and widely used across Europe. However, we have much to learn from our European neighbours in terms of auxiliary measures, and these will need to be a key focus in upcoming policy debates. To drive mass deployment, policy is needed to improve economics and make heat pumps considerably more attractive to consumers and installers. Right now, installers are best place to advise on heating solutions and the lack of training for them in this area is likely to hinder both deployment and uptake.

Requirements will need to extend beyond the development of a well-skilled work force.  They should also include measures to mandate technologies such as smart TRVs with heating controls to enable heat pumps to perform at the standard they do across Europe.  This would counteract the underperformance demonstrated in real life trials such as the Renewable Heat Premium Payment Scheme (RHPP). When they operate efficiently, the higher upfront cost of a heat pump in comparison to conventional heating systems is earned back in significant operating savings, making them a cost-effective solution long term.

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