Why heat pumps sum up all that is wrong with 'net zero'

'Soviet-style' planning could force households to buy heat pumps even if they do not want them


They were intended to be the silver bullet that meant British households would meet the Government’s ambitious “net zero” plan to offset carbon emissions.

But flaws with air and ground-source “heat pumps”, and the Government’s eco strategy, have become more apparent with each passing day. Now the aim of installing 600,000 pumps a year by 2028 is rapidly unravelling.

Demand for the green technology is stagnating; there is a shortage of engineers trained to install and maintain the pumps; and households who have already opted in are facing higher bills than if they had stuck with gas boilers.

The 2028 deadline is looming. Nearly nine in 10 British homes still use gas boilers and more than 1,600 heat pumps need to be installed every day to hit the target. So what’s gone wrong? Should homeowners ignore the call to install, and is there time for the Government to change course?

Your radiators aren’t big enough

The Government first published its plan to “build back greener” in October 2021. In a foreword to the net zero strategy Boris Johnson said it was the “greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity” since the Industrial Revolution.

For British households, this would mean swapping out “dirty” technology, such as gas boilers, for low carbon alternatives like heat pumps or hydrogen boilers, though a decision on the role of the latter is not due until 2026.

Heat pumps come in two forms: air source and ground source. The process is not dependent on it being warm outside. Air-source pumps function even if temperatures are below 0C and use far less electricity than they take to run, making heat pumps more energy efficient than traditional alternatives.

The heat from the pump flows directly into household radiators or underfloor heating. However, therein lies the first problem – heat pumps are simply not suited to many homes.

In May, homeowners who had installed heat pumps reported seeing energy bills jump to as much as £30,000 after it emerged most radiators are too small to work with them.

It was the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who realised this first. A study published by the department found some 99pc of British homes did not have radiators large enough to heat a room on the coldest winter’s day, using a low-temperature heat pump, the most common model.

Households hoping to upgrade their radiators to match their heat pump of choice could expect to fork out as much as £2,900 for a five-bedroom house. However, this does not include the labour cost of fitting a new heating system.

Until 2025, homeowners who opt to install a heat pump will receive a £5,000 grant to do so as part of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme. But the upfront cost is widely understood to be much higher.

Last year, Boris Johnson told a Parliamentary committee: “Let’s be frank, these things cost about 10 grand a pop. This is a lot of money for ordinary people. There are some big bets we may need to place... on hydrogen, but also on heat pumps.”

In any case, only £450m in funding has been earmarked for the scheme, meaning only 90,000 homes will benefit.

It is hoped heat pumps will become cheaper as more British manufacturers embrace the technology. Models are also expected to become more efficient in the years to come, which begs yet another question, why install a heat pump now?

This might explain waning enthusiasm from consumers. Nearly two in five British people said they would rather replace a broken gas boiler like for like, while just 12pc would opt for an air or ground source heat pump, according to research by law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

A separate survey conducted by the Ground Source Heat Pump Association found demand for heat pumps from domestic customers had fallen in the past year. In 2021, 50,000 heat pumps were installed compared to 1.6 million boilers.

Jim Woodley, from south London, replaced his boiler in January with another, fearing it was “too early” to switch to heat pumps. In June, he told The Telegraph: “Gas boilers still have a lot of life in them. I have a feeling that heat pumps will go the way of Betamax video and something else will come in and replace them.”

There is also no guarantee the price of heat pumps will fall as much as the Government claims it will. In France, where 1.1 million heat pumps were sold last year – compared to just 50,000 in the UK – installations still cost around £11,000.

Mike Foster, of the Energy Utilities Alliance trade body, said it was “wishful thinking” to suggest prices would fall in the UK.

“Heat pumps are a globally traded product, why would they be cheaper in the UK than France? Once you debunk this myth, the whole UK heat and buildings strategy falls apart,” he said.

Who will install your heat pump?

Even if you do want a pump, the vast majority of heating engineers do not hold the necessary qualification to install them.

Last month a report by heat pump manufacturer Baxi Heating found only 2,000 installers in the country are accredited to work with heat pumps, compared with the estimated 30,000 that would be needed to meet the Government’s target.

The shortage raises serious doubts about whether the Government can realistically achieve its target of 600,000 installations a year in six years’ time.

To speed things along, Beis has backed plans to penalise manufacturers who refuse to sell heat pumps, as part of a so-called “market mechanism” to encourage businesses to get on board.

The results of a consultation, published in May, suggested manufacturers could be fined £5,000 for installing gas boilers to fund the boiler upgrade scheme, a cost that would also ultimately be passed on to consumers.

No decision has yet been made on specific penalties, but plans to “kick-start” the market could take effect in the next two years. Mr Foster said a penalty system “smacks of Soviet-style planning”, forcing consumers to pay for a product they do not want and that might not be suitable for their home.

The technology is also more expensive to run than its “dirty” alternative, according to the Government’s own advisers. A report by the Climate Change Committee, an independent adviser on tackling climate change, said the running cost of heat pumps is 10pc higher than that of a gas boiler – equal to £100 more a year – even under current record high gas prices.

The CCC urged the Government to remove the green levy from electricity bills if it wanted to make heat pumps more affordable to run.

For rural homeowners, the Government’s push for heat pumps has been especially frustrating.

Howard Illingworth, of trade association Liquid Gas UK, said the “one size fits all” approach to phasing out gas boilers does not take into account the complexity of heating rural properties, which are typically older and less energy efficient, making them harder to heat and expensive to retrofit.

“Rural consumers do want to go green. But many cannot afford the cost of installing a heat pump,” Mr Illingworth said.

“Our analysis shows it can cost up to £32,000 to install a heat pump in a rural home, and make the required infrastructure changes.”

Instead, he argued, rural households should be provided with “realistic solutions and a choice of options”, such as liquid petroleum gas, “the lowest carbon conventional fuel”.

Paul Williams, an installer based in south Wales, said his consumer base – many of whom are in their 70s and 80s – have little incentive to install heat pumps.

“If heat pumps come in – and they are coming in – we can’t have a quick shut off time,” he said. “We need a softer rollout. We need to get consumers on side over the longer period of time.”

As the Tory leadership race ramps up, it is unclear whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss will address the heat pump question.

Mr Sunak provided financial support for net zero objectives while chancellor. He has not publicly praised the policy but did tell the Cop26 climate conference last year he would make the UK the “world’s first net zero financial centre”.

Ms Truss, meanwhile, spoke of “accelerating our transition to net zero” at the conference, adding that “a green economy can be achieved alongside economic success, creating jobs and opportunities”. She has been largely quiet on green issues since, however.

For now, it seems, the drive to make heat pumps the future of British household heating continues apace. When approached for comment, a Beis spokesman reiterated the £5,000 installation grant and the elimination of VAT on pumps.

He added: “Replacing a gas or oil boiler with a heat pump will help protect households from rising fossil fuel prices that are being driven up by pressures on global markets.

“The British Energy Security Strategy also set out our plans to rebalance costs on energy bills away from electricity to ensure heat pumps will be the best and most affordable choice for consumers.

“We are working with industry to further bring down the cost of heat pumps by up to half by 2025.”

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