Who wants a heat pump?

‘Net zero’ changes begin with big business but to meet targets there needs to be a consumer buy-in.

| 9 min read

There are big ambitions for radical change to get to ‘net zero’ set out in international agreements. So far, the requirements to get there have been mainly imposed by governments on big business. Many countries decided to tackle power generation and general industry first, before intensifying efforts to engage the consumer. Switching power generation from coal, oil and gas to wind, solar and hydro seemed the easier call. It meant requiring a few large companies in each country to undertake major changes of plant.

Governments already had some powers to influence how power is generated, to affect pricing in the market, to send signals over which power is preferred, and to tax and subsidise the companies, the transactions and the end consumers where needed. They could amend and strengthen these powers without undue challenge. Electricity wholesale markets were quite complex and remote from retail customers anyway and have got more complex as the green imperative has been brought to bear. Governments could also directly order new plant or encourage and subsidise those who would build the new generating capacity.

They could also load investment incentives and grants to companies to move their production away from fossil-fuel energy and could impose carbon taxes and price penalties on companies that persisted with using large amounts of carbon-based fuel.

Progress has been slower than with generation. There are so many industrial plants over such a wide range of industries that need to develop electrical alternatives to burning oil, coal and gas. Gradually the taxes and price mechanism will move more, with additional help from government subsidy and industry-wide plans. There will also be new tariffs or carbon border taxes on products that have generated too much carbon in their manufacture.

Problems in expansion of capacity

One of the problems in transitioning power generation to renewables is whether investors will also find money to pay for a large expansion of overall electricity capacity at the same time as paying to replace fossil-fuel plant with renewables. Added to this strain on the system is how to provide for days of low wind and little sun, where often fossil-fuel plant is kept on standby.

Large amounts of investment in various types of storage capacity to keep energy from hours of surplus generation for less windy times is needed on a much bigger scale than today. There are still many arguments about the best way of doing this and the mix of schemes that will be needed. They range from big batteries through pump storage to green hydrogen production.

We will need a lot of extra capacity if and when consumers go out and buy heat pumps and electric cars requiring so much more power at home. Judging the timing and magnitude of this makes the investment case for extra capacity difficult. Put in too little extra power and consumers hold back from buying green products. Put in too much and you have a period of losses for your new plant.

Crucial to getting nearer to the ambitious targets is the role of the consumer. Individuals and families worldwide mainly use fossil-fuel energy. There are two large uses most households have, for their car and their home heating. These require large amounts of energy compared to the lights and domestic appliances people plug into the home electricity circuit. Today, most homes that have cars and vans have petrol or diesel, and most homes are heated by some fossil-fuel boiler or fire. Governments are recommending much wider take up of electric heating, with especial promotion of the heat pump.

The case for the heat pump

The case for the heat pump is based around the way it can deliver three times as much energy in the form of heat as the electrical power that is put into it. If the electricity is all generated from renewable sources – and if the heat pump functions well – then there is a large reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions when a home changes to heating in this way. So far, consumers have been reluctant to adopt these systems for a variety of reasons.

The first thing to put people off heat pumps is the installation cost. A fully installed system without subsidy is several times the cost of a new gas boiler, which many prefer. Governments offer subsidies to narrow the gap but still usually leave the heat pump dearer. The heat pump will not work well in a poorly insulated house, so anyone in an older property will need first to install substantial additional insulation which may also entail expensive and intrusive building works. Whilst these works produce a good outcome however you heat your home, many cannot afford them or do not want the disruption. Some older houses will not be readily adaptable or improvements to windows and other visible features may be circumscribed by regulations for conservation and external appearance.

Some people buying a heat pump then report high electricity bills.

The second is running costs. Some people buying a heat pump then report high electricity bills. Whilst the fact that the heat pump delivers free energy from the heat it finds in the air or ground helps control bills, electricity is substantially more expensive than gas as a manufactured fuel. A heat pump cannot operate in extreme cold, so a standby electric heater is needed for those conditions in places where they might occur. Running on electric heating is going to be dearer than running on gas. In colder weather the efficiency of the heat pump can diminish.

The third is effectiveness. If you buy a heat pump to work with your current warm water radiators and hot water system, the water temperature will usually be quite a bit lower than with a gas boiler. Radiators will not feel as hot to the touch and showers will not need the same cold water top up to get to the right temperature. The home will only feel warm if insulation is good. To get the rooms to an acceptable temperature, you might need to fit bigger radiators with larger pipes to fill them. To keep hot water systems free of bugs it may be necessary to use an additional electric heater sometimes to get to a higher temperature.

Fitting a heat pump to a new-build, well-insulated home is the easiest way to make progress with this plan. Retro fitting to an older home is much more of a commitment than replacing the gas boiler with another more efficient modern one. The country’s carbon dioxide output only sees the full benefit if all the power used by the heat pump comes from a renewable source. All the time there is plenty of fossil-fuel fired electrical power on the system the effects are blunted.

Green alternatives to heat pumps

There are other types of electric heating which are green if run off renewable power. There are electric fires or electric heating units. There are modern versions of storage heaters where off-peak electricity can be used to heat up a solid core to the heating unit to discharge the heat when needed at times of day when electricity is dearer.

Many people want to keep the flexibility and higher temperatures of their gas boiler. They look to the gradual introduction of low and no carbon gas into the gas mixture they are burning. Many modern gas boilers could run on a rich hydrogen-based mix. If hydrogen is produced from renewable electricity then it is zero carbon. The no-carbon fuel could be introduced progressively without many having to change their equipment as additional no carbon fuel became available.

Householders will make up their own minds about whether to acquire a heat pump and when and how to replace their current gas or oil boiler. Many have good reasons today to hold back. Many want to help decarbonise but are not convinced about the current products. Some want bigger subsidies. Some think there are better technologies available that could produce a cheaper and better answer in due course. Some are not convinced about the need for them to do this. There needs to be changes of policy and consumer response to hit the ambitious targets. Various technologies are likely to play their part.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Who wants a heat pump?

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