Heating up: why the rhetoric on heat pumps needs to be matched by action

heat pumps

Joseph Raftery, Heating Product Manager at Samsung Climate Solutions, explains how action on heat pump utilisation needs to drastically increase if we are to hit net-zero targets.

Decarbonisation is the topic on everyone’s minds right now.

The UK has aggressive net-zero targets to hit, and whilst the country is taking steps to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in favour of renewables, more clearly needs to be done. Couple that with the volatility that is playing out on the global stage, and it is evident that the UK needs to recentre its focus on the solutions which can help the country accelerate progress towards its decarbonisation ambitions here and now.

So, where do things stand from a government and industry standpoint? There have been plenty of articles discussing the UK’s shift to cleaner energy sources, with the UK Prime Minister saying 100 per cent of the country’s electricity could come from renewables by 2035. However, over the past few years, we have seen the conversation flex to include discussion around low carbon heating solutions as a way to speed up progress towards these goals. Why? Because decarbonising heat is arguably the stiffest challenge we face in the drive to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, and heat fulfils some of our most primal needs – to provide warmth, cook food, and heat water. That is where heat pumps come in.

Heat pumps have not always had a fair trial in the media or within industry circles, but there is a growing realisation from the government that low carbon heating solutions are essential if the UK is to have any hope of meeting its goals. In fact, the Climate Change Committee highlighted that full decarbonisation of buildings by 2050 is necessary to reach the UK’s net-zero target.

This is no small ambition. There is a perception that UK housing stock is ‘leaky’ and ‘old’ making it difficult to retrofit low carbon heating solutions like heat pumps in any big way. The heat pump industry is asking the responsible question about how we can make the whole house heating system more efficient.  We can make a massive difference by guiding the home builders of today toward the most efficient method of integrating heat pumps into their total system design.

There is no doubt that the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy has helped highlight the need for greener heating and generated increased conversation around the topic, with Google searches for ‘heat pumps’ increasing in popularity by tenfold when the strategy was announced in October 2021. With the UK government committing to a new target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year – one of the headline ambitions in Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution – there’s a real impetus for the industry to get on board and help realise this vision.

As primary electrical source generation moves further towards wind, hydro, tidal, and solar, it is clear that air source heat pumps offer a low carbon option to help meet net-zero ambitions in the domestic heating sector. While there are challenges to overcome, such as clearer legislation, increased funding, and expanded training programs, it is a promising indication that 2022/23 will see an ever-increasing demand for heat pumps.

However, in order to fully realise their potential, the industry has a huge job to do to tackle the myths and misconceptions about heat pumps. It will take a massive push from heat pump manufacturers, industry bodies, developers, and the government to reset the narrative. After all, we are a nation that’s been reliant on gas boilers for years. The thought of future housing stock in the UK, minus gas boilers, feels unimaginable for most people, and yet we know that that is the target set by the government because it is essential for a greener future.

How does a heat pump work?

Traditional gas boilers operate on fossil fuels whereas air source heat pumps use electricity and energy available from passing ambient air over a heat exchanger. Even in cold temperatures, there is still some heat available in the surrounding air and modern heat pumps can work effectively at temperatures as low as -20 degrees centigrade. The heat pump refrigerant absorbs the heat and energy from the surrounding ambient air via a fan blowing across the outdoor coil. This air absorbs the heat into the outdoor refrigeration coil, then a compressor compresses the refrigerant. The compression process generates energy and makes the refrigerant hotter and sends it to a plate heat exchanger installed inside the heat pump, and the refrigerant inside the plate passes heat to the waterside of the plate exchanger.

This transfers the stored heat energy to heat your home and your hot water tank, and then the refrigerant cools and is sent back to the coil to absorb heat once again from the surrounding ambient air. The cycle then repeats. Completely powered by electricity, the air source heat pump can be 400 per cent efficient, compared to an average of 90 per cent efficiency of a typical gas heating system. You may hear this referred to as COP (coefficient of performance).

What is the government strategy?

The Heat and Buildings strategy laid out in October 2021 established the Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) that enables homeowners to claim £5,000 grants for installing a heat pump as of April 2021. While a welcome step, as is the Future Home Standard of 2025 banning gas boilers from new homes, it is not enough to meet government decarbonisation targets. The grant is only able to cover approximately 30,000 installs a year, which is yards off the mass uptake needed to truly hit the required targets. Furthermore, the standard of 2025 is still several years away, and the important question to ask is what are new build developers and contractors doing now to support the move to low carbon heating in the new build sector?

There are more things to consider when moving towards net-zero in our housing stock than just heat pumps, but they are critical if this country is ever going to realise its decarbonisation targets. Although many people talk about insulation in the same breath as heat pumps, insulating the UK housing stock is an important step to energy efficiency and cutting emissions, no matter the heat source, even with gas boilers. The positive step with new builds is that they are already built to a specification that enables heat pumps to perform at their best, and so changing the mindset from gas as the norm to heat pumps ‘as standard’ will be crucial. With that in mind, training and education (especially from manufacturers) can help in this transition.

What can the industry and manufacturers do?

Skill is a big obstacle to overcome in realising this vision. To upskill a cohort of installers in the industry, more needs to be done to match growth. The heat pump market in the UK has grown by 64 per cent from 2020 to 2021. Developers and contractors are becoming more aware of the consumer benefit of future-proofing their houses with low-carbon heating. This not only helps the environment by moving away from fossil fuels but also supports the move to more energy self-sufficiency as the UK develops its National Grid electricity to become more renewable.

Heat pumps are reliable technology solutions when installed correctly and the industry is rallying to put in place the required guarantees when it comes to developing design software and making more training courses available to the mass market. For example, the Heat Pump Association is working on new training courses such as OFQUAL Level 3 Qualifications in low carbon – low temperature and Heat Pump Core and Air to Water.

Furthermore, manufacturers are increasing their training offering too to speed things up – something we are also investing in at Samsung to shortly become LCL certified. We are also increasing our training provision with the hire of a new training manager and building our wider capabilities to help speed things up, including partnering with colleges to help them train the emerging talent in the industry.

What does the future hold?

 The take-up and attitudes towards heat pumps across Europe should be an encouraging sign for UK developers and homeowners. In nearby Ireland, between 2018 and October 2020, 26,900 heat pumps had been installed in newly built homes, according to the BER database. Across Europe, heat pump sales grew by 7.4 per cent in 2020, with 1.62 million units sold across the continent. Assuming a life expectancy of approximately 20 years, the current European heat pump stock amounts to a staggering 14.86 million units. The Netherlands has recently indicated they will be moving away from gas heating systems towards making heat pumps mandatory in 2026, and there are signs the EU will be moving away from gas heating systems from 2029.

This demonstrates the proven success of the take-up heat pumps in the European domestic market and must surely be a model that the UK should strive to follow. If all the signs are right, we are expecting a similar growth trajectory in the UK. I hope that the industry takes giant leaps to embrace the undoubted benefits of heat pumps and invest in the skills needed to make this a viable and thriving sector.

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