Jan 29, 2024

Home Heat Pumps Deserve Louder Cheerleaders

In another installment of the net-zero culture wars, a row has been brewing between the co-leader of the Scottish Green Party and a millionaire heat-pump supplier over proposed plans to downgrade the energy rating of homes with gas boilers. It’s produced yet more confusion about an appliance that will be vital for meeting our climate targets. Heat pumps need louder cheerleaders.

Lord Willie Haughey, the millionaire, claims that the Scottish climate is too cold for heat pumps to work effectively. Patrick Harvie, Scotland’s zero-carbon buildings minister, responded that the entrepreneur “invest in a bit of R&D” to catch up with rival firms. Haughey’s company, City Building Engineering Services, installs the devices for commercial clients. He admitted his comments were at odds with the business, telling the Daily Telegraph that “my staff are always telling me I should not criticize our core business, but this is eco-nonsense being peddled by the Greens.” But unless the Nordics and the Scandinavians — who are installing heat pumps at the fastest rates in Europe — are quietly freezing, Harvie has a point.

The catty comments are mildly entertaining, but they make clear that there’s a lot of work to be done, not only on rolling out decarbonized heating sources across a housing stock largely dominated by gas boilers, but on communication and education.

Heat pumps are likely to be the main tool used to make keeping homes warm more climate-friendly. Grant Shapps, the UK energy minister, suggested last month that an alternative proposal to use hydrogen for heating would probably be scrapped, after the first village-wide trial of hydrogen boilers was ditched due to local opposition. Hydrogen would be a costly endeavor, both for ensuring homes are fit to use the gas safely and in consumer costs for the fuel.

Other low-carbon options such as electric boilers might work for smaller homes and apartments, but would be more expensive to run, and miss out on the efficiency of heat pumps. Because they draw warmth from the air or ground, heat pumps can produce three units of heat for every unit of electricity consumed.

So why is the UK so far behind other nations in Europe?

Misinformation about the systems is thriving in Britain, stoked in part by newspaper skepticism. DeSmog, an investigative media outlet focused on climate-change topics, reported that the Energy and Utilities Association, a trade body representing gas-boiler manufacturers, had paid a public-affairs firm to generate articles criticizing heat pumps and lobbying for hydrogen for home heating. Mike Foster, chief executive officer of the EUA, told DeSmog that “there is no anti-heat pump campaign funded by EUA” and that neither he nor the EUA are outright opposed to heat pumps, instead supporting “the right appliance for the right home.”

Nevertheless, there’s been a lot of high-profile negative content about the technology, while government messaging has been lacking. Take two of Haughey’s claims as examples: That the Scottish climate is too cold for heat pumps, and that the devices raise the risk of Legionnaire’s Disease. Neither is true.

Air-source heat pumps, the most popular type in the UK, still work when the ambient temperature outside is below freezing. They may not be as efficient as temperatures get more extreme, meaning they’ll consume more electricity to produce the same amount of heat, but you won’t be left cold. “We’ve seen examples of good heat pump performance at -20C (-4F). There’s nowhere that gets that cold in Europe on an extended basis, so weather is not a reason not to have heat pumps anywhere in Europe,” Richard Lowes, a heating-policy specialist at the NGO Regulatory Assistance Project, told me. Meanwhile, heat pumps have been equipped to limit the risk of Legionnaire’s Disease, a type of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria which grows in warm, stagnant water, for years. Lowes suggests a government helpline to answer queries and providing information to consumers would be useful, or the UK could follow Ireland’s lead with a one-stop service looking after the key elements of a home energy retrofit, from offering advice to checking quotes.

There’s hope more positive messaging will start to break through. After all, Brits living with heat pumps are overwhelmingly satisfied with them. We tend to place greater weight on anecdotes than facts, so the more that people have good experiences switching their heating system to a decarbonized one, the more their peers should follow suit. This has happened in other areas: Solar panels, for instance, have been described as contagious.

But there’s still too much friction, even for those who really want to make the switch. Installation is expensive, especially if radiators and insulation need upgrading, and planning rules pose a problem for those with small gardens. To count as a permitted development, the external machine must be at least 1 meter (3.3 feet) from the property boundary in England and Scotland, 3 meters in Wales and a whopping 30 meters in Northern Ireland. Lowes says he is repeatedly told by suppliers that this is the key blocker.

The government does provide grants to help with the initial installation costs under the Boiler Upgrade Scheme — £5,000 ($6,365) in England and Wales, and £7,500 in Scotland. But there’s another big move the UK could make to incentivize switches.

Electricity is several times the price of gas so, while heat pumps do save money, they don’t dramatically reduce energy bills. That’s partly down to the wholesale costs, but it’s not helped by the fact that electricity attracts carbon taxes and levies, while gas doesn’t. Rebalancing these prices would make heat pumps far more attractive for households. Thomas Nowak, secretary general of the European Heat Pump Association, told me that end users are willing to invest their own cash if they know that they will save money on operating costs. Indeed, countries in Europe with the highest installation rates tend to have cheaper electricity relative to gas. And, as the chart above shows, running costs are the element that users are least likely to be satisfied with.

Of course, there also has to be a stick that beats consumers firmly away from gas boilers. As things stand, those are scheduled to be phased out by 2035, but recent comments by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove suggest that the government may be wavering. That would be a mistake.

Ideal Heating, one of Britain’s biggest boiler makers, is investing £50 million to start manufacturing heat pumps to keep up with what it calls “the biggest transformation since the switch from coal to gas devices in the 1930s.” It’s right. There ought to be a clear and loud commitment from the government to backing the transition to heat pumps — and the swift removal of unnecessary frictions that hamper their adoption.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.

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