Take-up of heat pumps is slow, but don’t write off the green route to warming your home, says Peter Curtain.

Last week a Government scheme to promote heat pumps for homes was delayed by 12 months. Days later, the National Audit Office urged ministers to support the rollout ‘in a way that minimises the long-term costs to both taxpayers and consumers’.

Ministers acknowledged the slow take-up last September when they raised the £5,000 maximum grant under the Boiler Upgrade Scheme to £7,500 for households and businesses switching to air- or ground-source heat pumps.

The report by the spending watchdog was seized on by net zero critics, one headline saying: ‘Failing heat pump rollout puts net zero goals at risk’.

In my view the 12-month delay on introducing the Clean Heat Market Mechanism, which will require manufacturers to fit a proportion of heat pumps compared to fossil-fuel boilers, was a response to political concerns over net zero.

Commitment remains

Last year saw a 19% jump in certified UK installations of heat pumps of all types on the previous year, taking the total over 200,000. But it’s still a small number, way under the official target of 600,000 units installed a year by 2028.

Despite these challenges, the Government’s bid to decarbonise heating remains a key part of its plan to for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – home heating accounts for 18% of UK emissions; about 24 million homes use gas-fired boilers.

Heat pumps are a key weapon in the fight against emissions, using much less fossil fuel than a traditional boiler. They’re clean, green, provide some independence from utility companies, and they lower electricity bills. And the Government is trying to bring down costs for consumers.

Several factors are blamed for the slow take-up – confusion over any role for hydrogen in home heating, Government ‘rebalancing’ the electricity market to address price instability, excessive optimism over consumer demand and manufacturer supply, and confusion over costs of installation and use.

Why the reluctance?

The NAO criticised not the decarbonisation aim but the means, saying: “The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero must … ensure its mix of incentives, engagement and regulations addresses the barriers to progress in its current programme of work.”

Why the slow take-up? It’s hard to find hard data it could be psychology – ideas on how to speed it up range from encouraging insulation to installers producing more detailed case studies. The Heat Pump Federation industry body renewed its call for ministerial intervention to ensure the ‘lowest-carbon heat is the lowest-cost heat’, so users of electric heat and heat pumps would pay less per unit for electricity.

But there is progress. Applications to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme in January 2024 were up by 40% compared to the same month last year.

Are they any good?

Using technology similar to a refrigerator or air conditioner, heat pumps extract heat from a natural source such as outside air or geothermal energy stored in the ground, boost it using chemicals, and transfer the heat to where it’s needed.

Heat pumps are far more efficient than burning fuel, at least 300% efficient on average, generating three units of heat for every unit of electricity used. They can be even more effective when used with other low-carbon technologies, such as solar PV and electricity storage.

So why aren’t more homes and businesses switching? First, installation costs money, often £15,000 or more, though the generous grant helps; second, finding the right system and installer takes time; third, fitting will involve some disruption, however minimal.

And while air-source heat pumps are great for heating, they usually won’t supply your hot water, though there are ways to address that issue. They work better with effective insulation, which can be costly. The equipment takes up space and depending on your home, you may require wider pipes and new radiators.

Another factor is resistance to change, especially for those who grew up with electricity- or gas-fired boilers combined with heaters or radiators.

Big future for the technology

That said, heat pumps can be a great investment when done the right way. I paid less than £3,500 for two ‘air-to-air’ units including installation, efficiently and economically heating two medium-to-big rooms without radiators. Air-to-air units are comparatively cheap so there’s no grant.

For air- and ground-source units, the boiler scheme is not the only financial incentive – local grants are available in some areas, and there’s no VAT.

Plus, the technology’s improving year on year (any problems are often the result of faulty installation). Despite the coldest climates in Europe, Sweden, Finland and Norway have the Continent’s highest heat pump sales.

The era of cheap fossil fuels is over, heat pumps are getting better and more popular and installation standards improving – expect to see a big upward swing in the next few years.

Anyone considering investing in heat pumps should talk to others who’ve already done so, shop around, seek the best advice and don’t decide solely on cost. The NSBRC and others hold regular events where you can talk to users and suppliers.

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