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The UK Lags Behind Europe on Installing Low Carbon Heat Pumps

A new announcement on Government grants to install heat pumps does not go far enough – while the policy itself faces criticism from climate sceptics and a right-wing media

Air sourced heat pumps used to heat offices in Barnstaple . Photo: Paul Glendell/Alamy

The UK Lags Behind EuropeOn Installing Low Carbon Heat Pumps

A new announcement on Government grants to install heat pumps does not go far enough – while the policy itself faces criticism from climate sceptics and a right-wing media

The UK is falling behind its European neighbours when it comes to the installation of heat pumps, as the Government announces a new scheme to deliver heat pump grants worth £5,000 to households wanting to replace gas boilers. 

Electric heat pumps, which look like air conditioning units, extract warmth from outdoor sources such as air, ground or water and concentrate and transfer the heat into the home.

The scheme aims to help the Government meet its green energy targets to ensure homes built from 2025 will produce 75-80% less carbon emissions. A report published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January 2021 explained how plans around “the installation of heat pumps, particularly air-to-water and air-to air heat pumps, will play a major role in delivering low carbon heat for homes built to the Future Homes Standard.”

However, despite the fanfare, the scheme will only lead to 90,000 pumps being fitted over three years, something campaigners say doesn’t go far enough. Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs told the BBC that the move “just isn’t very much” and that “these grants will only incentivise the best-off households.”

The UK is trailing behind other countries on heat pump installation, according to statistics from the Heat Pump Association.

This means there is still a long way to go to meet the Government’s own target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028, as well as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) statement that 19 million heat pumps will need to be installed by 2050 to achieve net zero.

The lack of ambition also concerns Colin Morrison, Senior Director of Sustainability at planning consultancy Turley. He told Byline Times that “we should really be doing all we can to stimulate this market because every single building in the UK whether it’s new or existing will over the next 10 years have to be retrofitted with heat pumps. Why can’t we do more to support heat pumps, make ourselves the world leader and export them all around the world?”

The scheme was announced in the midst of an energy crisis that has led to gas prices rising by 250% since January. The cap on gas bills has been raised by £139 to £1,277 for an average customer in the UK.


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Opposition to Heat Pumps

While environmental campaigners have expressed concern that the Government’s actions do not go far enough, the right-wing press, think-tanks and some politicians have been highly critical of the move from gas boilers to heat pumps. 

The shift has been welcomed by the Mirror as a chance for families to “save the big bucks on bills long term”. But its right-of-centre red top peer The Sun has castigated the intervention as being too costly, saying that heat pumps will cost families £2,500 just to fit the necessary pipework. The Express has similar doubts, writing that “installing heat pumps could cause ‘major complications’ and cost the average household an extra £2,500.”

Conservative MP Steve Baker has also expressed concerns that heat pumps are not affordable for the majority of households, promoting the view that a transition to low carbon heating alternatives will place a bigger financial burden on consumers. 

His view is supported by newspapers like The Times as well as its sister paper The Sun. Consumer concerns were exacerbated when both papers reported on a green levy on gas bills which could push the average household bill up by another £170. The proposal was part of a consultation and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told The Times that “no decisions have been made.”

Baker is also involved with Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Forum, the “UK’s most prominent climate science denial group” which recently rebranded itself as Net Zero Watch. It aims to discuss the “serious implications of expensive and poorly considered climate change policies”. Baker is one of two backbench Conservative MPs who have launched a similar group, the Net Zero Scrutiny Committee, within Parliament.

However, those in favour of heat pumps are clear that such scaremongering about costs is too simplistic when considered against rising gas prices and the climate crisis itself. 

Morrison told Byline Times that “gas prices are going through the roof, we’ve got gas companies going bust, and one of the criticisms of heat pumps is the scare stories saying they’re going to cost consumers a lot of money. Well hang on a minute now, we’ve just seen an 800% increase in the wholesale price of gas.”

His comments are backed by a spokesperson from the Heat Pump Association, who explained that “reducing our reliance on gas with the further growth of renewables will further increase the benefit in terms of carbon savings for heat pumps that are already considerable (65%+ vs a natural gas boiler).” 

Morrison sees heat pumps as “absolutely critical to the decarbonisation sector”. However, this view is not shared by all. Writing under the headline “Too Much Hot Air Around Heat Pumps”, Michael Glackin in The Times argued that “heat pumps… are constantly cited as the ace in hole for decarbonisation. The problem is no one in the UK wants them until their tried and tested gas boiler needs replacing.”

Greater Investment

The central pillar of the Government’s plan for net-zero is its 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. The plan includes the goal of 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028, however, it provides only “£1 billion to extend the schemes announced by the Chancellor earlier in the year to further kickstart this market.”

It’s for this reason that, while the Heat Pump Association is “pleased” with the target, it also wants to see “a credible policy framework of regulation, structural incentives and financial support to reach the level of deployment outlined.”

The new £5,000 grant scheme does not come close enough to achieving that. 

It’s not the first heat pump installation initiative announced by the Government. A Green Homes Grant scheme, which provided £5,000 to people looking to retrofit their houses with a heat pump, closed in March 2021 after only seven months. 

BEIS told Byline Times that “the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme was designed as a short-term economic stimulus and was delivered during an ongoing pandemic. Despite this, and challenges with delivery, 99.9% of applications have now been processed, meaning almost 80,000 upgrades to homes.”

The Renewable Heat Incentive was launched in 2014 and promises homeowners that they can recoup the cost of installing a heat pump with payments for producing renewable heat. 

This expires in March 2022, though BEIS explained it will be replaced by the “Clean Heat Grant scheme in April 2022, which will provide upfront capital grants to domestic and small non-domestic buildings for the installation of heat pumps and, in limited circumstances, biomass boilers.” 

Despite right-wing opposition to the interventions, a recent poll found that 77% of respondents in the UK backed grants for heat pumps. It could be that attitudes towards the new technology will start to shift to become more favourable over time. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, wind farms faced major criticism – now it is treated as the jewel in the crown of renewable energy supply. 

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