“I was so disappointed”: the government’s heating plan

Before COP26, the UK government wants to demonstrate its commitment to reducing fossil fuel use. It plans to spend £3.9 billion to replace gas boilers with heat pumps. But other parties, green campaigners and heating installers are sceptical.

Air Source Heat Pump
Air source heat pump: photo Stephen McNair

Home heating is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the government plans to spend £1.3 billion a year on upgrading homes. However, this is a small contribution to the overall problem. By contrast, the Green Alliance is calling for £22 billion a year (for all green measures), and the Labour Party is promising £28 billion a year. So are the government plans enough, and will they work?

The reaction

Local specialists are sceptical. Daniel Lewis, of Inspired Renewables in Norfolk, commented.

“I have been working in renewables for ten years, and when I saw this, I was so disappointed. Ten years ago we had to explain to people what a heat pump is. Now they come knowing exactly what they want, and demand is going through the roof. Its taken that time to build things up, and now the government is taking away the scheme which has been supporting this, and replacing it with something much less generous”

What is the problem?

Home heating accounts for 14 percent of all UK energy use, and 21% of its carbon emissions. The overwhelming majority of UK homes are heated by burning gas or oil. Gas accounts for 85 percent of all domestic heating, and both make a major contribution to global heating.  And because most British homes are less well insulated than in mainland Europe, a lot of the energy just goes to heat the outside air.

What is a heat pump?

Heat pumps work like refrigerators in reverse. Where a refrigerator uses a compressor to cool the inside by heating the outside air, so a heat pump uses a compressor to warm the inside by cooling the outside. 

Heat pumps are generally much more efficient than oil and gas boilers. Many factors, including house insulation, radiator design, and outside air temperature, all affect the performance of a heat pump, but a typical pump can generate 2 or 3 Kilowatts of heat from 1 Kilowatt of electricity.

They are widely used in northern Europe (where winters are colder), but have been slow to  penetrate the UK market. At present they represent only 1 percent of all domestic heating in the UK.

Heat pumps are entirely carbon free if the electricity they use is generated by wind, sun or nuclear energy.

A less generous plan

The government plan replaces the current Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which paid householders a sum based on the amount of energy used over seven years, with a simple grant.  However, the money available to a householder is being dramatically reduced. Under the current scheme, which closes next March, the maximum government grant is £9,100. The new scheme replaces this with a single grant of £5,000.   

However, the Renewable Heat Incentive has not been a great success. In 2018 the National Audit Office reported that it had only reached 22 percent of its target number of installations, and the original estimate of carbon savings had been halved.

The latest plans may well go the same way. They will only succeed if there is enough money, if a series of technical and industrial problems can be overcome, and there are sufficient people to carry out the installation. All these are open to doubt.

Is this enough money?

The government presents its scheme as a major step forward. Green campaigners and heat pump installers are more sceptical. The scale of the funding is small, compared to the need. The government’s allocation will provide grants for 90,000 heat pumps: but this is only 6% of the 25 million gas boilers currently installed.

Even the greenest householders will only switch if there are some visible savings. Although heat pumps are much more efficient than gas boilers, while gas is cheaper than electricity the gain is cancelled out. Only if gas prices go up, and stay up, will consumers see the savings.

Will innovation overcome the problems?

At present heat pumps are mostly imported from the EU. They are expensive. A complete installation, with new radiators and improved insulation, can easily cost £15,000. Furthermore, costs are rising rapidly. One installer reported that the price of radiators has risen by 35 percent in two months. 

The government is investing £60 million in technological innovation, in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs. They claim that this will reduce prices, so that by 2030 the cost of buying and installing heat pumps will be the same as fossil fuel boilers. Price drops like this have happened for solar panels, but it is still a massive reduction in costs.

Do we have the people?

Heat pumps are relatively new to the UK, and design, installation and servicing all require higher levels of expertise than traditional heating.

Government says that these initiatives will generate “tens of thousands of new jobs in research and development, production, supply chain and installation over the next decade”. Again this is a very ambitious proposal, bearing in mind that there is already a severe shortage of qualified people in construction, and especially of the plumbers and electricians who are needed for this work. Indeed, because of the age of the existing workforce, very large recruitment is already needed, simply to replace those retiring.

Andy Glanville, of Inspired Renewables in Norfolk, specialists in renewable energy, said

“We’ve clearly got the work: we just can’t find the people. I am lucky to have some electricians and plumbers, and I have taken on three trainees, but I can’t keep up with the demand.”

Does the infrastructure exist?

At present, the large majority of heat pumps in the UK are made in Northern Europe. The government hopes to create a much larger UK based industry, but this will take time, and is in competition with European firms, for whom this has been mainstream business for decades. There will also be upgrading costs as electricity demand rises.  

The jury is out

The government’s aspirations are grand, but these proposals are modest. Alone they will not deliver the decarbonising targets they have set, and their feasibility is in serious doubt. The jury is still out both on whether they will work, and whether they will really help save the planet.

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