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The problem with heat pumps

Heat pumps have been the norm in Sweden for 40 years. Why haven’t they had the same success in the UK?

By Megan Kenyon

My parents are getting the hang of sustainable living. From their home in Cumbria, they drive a hybrid car, which they charge regularly in the garage. Last year they had solar panels installed on their roof.

But their adoption of renewable alternatives stops at central heating. Like 23 million other households in the UK, they still have a gas boiler. A heat pump, which is powered by electricity, either takes heat from the air or the ground and uses it to control the temperature of a building. Unlike a gas boiler, no fossil fuels are directly involved in operating it.

Over Christmas, I tried lobbying Dad to make the switch when my parents’ boiler needs replacing. Perhaps due to my mediocre powers of persuasion he remained hesitant, questioning how well heat pumps work.

As the proud owners of a pair of solar panels, my parents ought to be the ideal customers for a heat pump. The system can work in a closed loop, with the electricity from the panels powering the pump. That should reduce their overall heating costs.

Still, their hesitancy is not unique. A 2022 survey by the sustainable consultancy firm, DG Cities, found that almost half of respondents (46 per cent) only knew “a little” about heat pumps. One in five said they had heard of the systems, but didn’t actually know what they were.

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Misinformation about heat pumps – whether they work effectively in cold weather or will reduce a bill-payer’s heating costs – is rife. Last week, the Energy Minister, Martin Callanan told Sky News’ ClimateCast that “vested interests” are “funding campaigns of misinformation” about heat pumps.

Given the potential for decarbonisation in switching to heat pumps, the government must do much more to increase their uptake. Last year, Rishi Sunak pushed back the deadline for the phase-out of fossil fuel boilers by ten years to 2035. It is expected a further ten million gas boilers will be installed before we hit that deadline.

In Sweden, heat pumps are the ubiquitous choice of central heating system and have been used by residents for around 40 years. Daniel Särefjord, the UK chief executive of the Swedish heat pump firm Aira, moved to the UK earlier this year and is currently spending his “first winter with a gas boiler”.

Aira launched in the UK last year, and plans to make use of the government’s £450m boiler upgrade scheme to help consumers transition to pumps. Särefjord told the Green Transition that Sweden’s shift to heat pumps was sparked by the mid-1970s oil crisis. With the cost of oil at record highs, the Swedish government gave consumers subsidies to switch from fossil fuel heating systems to electrical alternatives.

Särefjord pointed out that one of the reasons such a widespread transition hasn’t happened in the UK is because it has a “very advanced gas network” that has served the population “really well”. He is hopeful, however, that “change is starting to happen”.

But more change is needed to encourage more of us to opt for heat pumps. Electricity is currently more expensive because it is subject to carbon taxes. In comparison, natural gas used for residential heating is not taxed and is therefore cheaper. This is despite the fact that around half of the UK’s electricity is renewable.

Another barrier to rolling out heat pumps is the planning system. Särefjord said more than half the consumers his company meets require planning permission to install a heat pumps, due to the sound the system makes, and the fact it must be attached to the outside of the property. This is off-putting for potential converts and can slow down the process. It is an even bigger block for those whose boilers break down and need to replace their heating system urgently.

With the built environment contributing around 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions, decarbonising heating systems is essential. And a lot of work evidently needs to be done to convince my parents, and others, to change their gas boiler.

This article was originally published as an edition of the Green Transition, New Statesman Spotlight’s weekly newsletter on the economics of net zero. To see more editions and subscribe, click here.

[See also: 22 heat pump myths debunked]

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