Is Gas Holding Back Heat Pumps in the UK?

While the U.K. government has committed itself to decarbonizing heating, there’s still some way to go if you listen to some of the most vocal industry experts. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the cheap availability of natural gas for businesses across the UK.

The question is simple: Why should a company invest in a heat pump when they get their heating by other means?

The incentive for businesses to switch to low-carbon solutions has been provided by the Renewable Heat incentive. Unfortunately, this may not be going far enough to change the culture surrounding businesses and their green practices. Switching to better and economical gas heating systems often appears on the surface much safer than investing in something like a heat pump.

Gas production actually increased in 2016 in the UK, up 3.6 percent over 2015, and demand was the highest it has been since 2011. While many countries across the world, including in Europe and the U.S., are already on board with heat pumps, the UK still seems to lag behind.

Some 85 percent of all heating systems in the UK are powered by gas, and we’re still installing around one and a half million boilers each year. It could, of course, be as much a cultural difference as anything else and changing hearts and minds with better promotion might be a key factor in the short term.

The UK Clean Growth Plan

A problem for all countries is how to stimulate economic growth while still operating a low carbon economy. Many businesses and industries rely on fossil fuels to keep down the costs and operate profitably. There’s something of a catch 22 situation as well. Competitive businesses won’t benefit from going low carbon unless others are doing it too.

There are many in the heat pump industry who believe that heat pumps are the most viable alternative and could, given the chance, provide the impetus to decarbonise business in the U.K. Many also feel that the government is doing some but not enough to promote change to this kind of technology. The reduction in carbon emissions is ambitious: to reach a 57 percent reduction of 1990 emissions by 2032 and 80 percent by 2050. That’s not going to be achieved if the majority of businesses are still using gas powered heating and see no reason to change.

What Needs to be Done?

Many believe the high upfront cost of installing a heat pump is the major factor that is preventing more wide-scale uptake. If you are putting in a ground source heat pump it currently costs as much as five times more than the average gas boiler. As far as running costs go, in addition to the installation price tag, heat pumps don’t so significantly outweigh gas central heating that it makes sense for businesses to switch. In the past, utility companies have been at the forefront of installing new, efficient gas boilers and have perhaps put too much emphasis on them. That may be changing in more recent times with numerous companies offering heat pump installations. Progress is, however, still slow.

While increases to the Renewable Heat Incentive this year could well improve uptake and installation of heat pumps for both domestic and commercial properties, the industry isn’t expecting to see a massive upturn. That’s worrying when you consider the U.K. government’s targets for decarbonizing the nation’s heating.

There’s another issue, particularly with old housing stock that isn’t necessarily suited to the low but constant power of heat pumps. Extra money often needs to be invested in improving insulation for the technology to have any major effect. Recent developments, however, could see heat pumps working more effectively and delivering higher levels of heat.

In the end, if we are to reduce carbon emissions and decarbonize heating in the U.K., there needs to be collective response not just by government but also by businesses. The former has already been delivered in part by the Renewable Heat Incentive. The latter is going to prove a lot more problematic to solve and may need more incentive to switch from a reliable and cheap gas source. 

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Steven Meredith is a writer for The Renewable Energy Hub UK , a free source of renewable energy information and home to the most comprehensive renewable energy installer listings directory and industry eCommerce environments in the UK.

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