Heat pumps and net zero – the facts

HPA Vice Chairman and NIBE managing director Phil Hurley tackles the decarbonisation debate head on by presenting the case for heat pumps and highlighting the importance of installers in engaging with homeowners about low-carbon heating alternatives.

It’s hard to ignore the growing public awareness and demand for action against climate change.

Almost every day there is a headline or political debate about what needs to be done to reduce the impact on the planet.

Most significantly, on the 11th June the UK Government introduced a Bill to Parliament that commits the UK to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. This was in response to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report ‘Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming.’

Chief executive of the CCC, Chris Stark believes that heat decarbonisation will be the biggest challenge with our share of low carbon heating requiring an increase from today’s 4.5% to 80% by 2050.

The report was widely welcomed by the industry despite some push back from fossil fuel incumbents, but this is hardly surprising given recommendations to phase out fossil fuels and introduce ambitious targets for renewable heat deployment.

These debates are important, especially when we consider the change required. This makes confusion over dates and targets worrying, and the general misinformation about technological solutions like heat pumps is increasingly frustrating.

Heat pumps are an essential part of the decarbonisation solution and as noted by the CCC, mass deployment will be needed over the coming years.

Their benefits and capabilities should be widespread across media platforms, but misinformation often steers away from the facts. In this short article I hope to set things straight. I regularly see articles highlighting the need for larger heat emitters when installing heat pumps. This is often the case for existing homes but there are a range of options on the market where the radiators required are not significantly bigger than the standard size.

There is also very little cost if any associated with buying larger radiators when building a new home. Moreover, as the thermal efficiency of buildings increases and heat demand falls, radiators are increasingly likely to be oversized for the property meaning that they may not need to be replaced in order to be compatible with heat pumps.

Another primary misconception about heat pumps is that they will not work when it is cold outside. In reality, they can work to an outdoor temperature of -20°C and at the same time provide up to 58°C in supply line temperature.

By providing both space and hot water heating throughout the year and by heating water above 50 degrees, they run for longer hours and provide a consistent and comfortable indoor temperature. Their high efficiencies mean they can offer carbon emissions savings against fossil fuel systems including gas boilers, which we will be moving away from in the coming years.

The transition away from high carbon fossil fuels is essential in the low-carbon transition and heat pumps form part of a range of solutions available to address our heterogenous stock. However, whilst the technology is readily available, the number of installers familiar with renewable heating falls short.

To address this, a fully-fledged strategy to educate and qualify new heat pump installers will need to be prioritised. For consumers, the transition away from fossil fuels can be a daunting prospect.

Considering their engagement with homeowners, installers are best placed to raise awareness of the alternative heating options available. Recognising the importance of installer training is vital. They need to be able to covey the benefits of heat pumps and deploy them to perform as they should.

Given that the Future Homes Standard will mandate the end of fossil fuel heating systems in all new homes from 2025, we can expect the introduction of improved efficiency standards that will decrease heat demand substantially. It is therefore likely to mean that new homes will not have gas connections. It is in the government’s best interest to deliver an installer base that is prepared to deploy low-carbon alternatives.

The CCC has also recommended that almost all heating replacements in existing homes must be low carbon by 2035. This will require the roll-out of heat pumps in the 2020s alongside other low carbon systems with high levels of efficiency.