Heat pump facts: what you need to know about the future of home heating

Ultra-efficient heat pumps can help heat our homes without warming the climate. Read on to learn how they work - and why you may have already bought your last gas boiler.

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What is a heat pump?

Heat pumps, which we could also call electric boilers, are the future of home heating. They work by gathering small amounts of heat energy from the air or ground, and concentrating it to warm up your home. The magic of this process means they work whatever the weather, even in temperatures as low as -15C.

Heat pumps are powered by electricity, which is getting cleaner as we add more renewable energy to the system. Government has said they’re aiming for electricity to be zero carbon in 14 years time.

Because they gather heat energy from their surroundings, heat pumps are amazingly efficient. They’re three times as efficient as a gas boiler, so for every unit of energy you put in, you get three units of heat out of a heat pump. When combined with proper insulation, that means lower bills too.

Heat pumps are nothing new – in fact they’ve been around in some form for 160 years – longer than gas boilers. They use the same kind of technology that’s found in fridges and air conditioning systems.

Why do we need heat pumps?

In short, because they’re a crucial tool for tackling climate change. Most of our homes use polluting fossil gas for heating, and the UK has some of the worst-insulated housing in Europe. In total, 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions come directly from our homes, through cooking, heating and hot water. The UK cannot get dangerous carbon emissions down to zero without cutting carbon from housing, and heat pumps are a really effective way to do that.

Do heat pumps work well in the UK?

Yes. Although heat pumps aren’t common in the UK, that’s more to do with government decisions than any issue with the technology. Heat pumps have been popular in other European countries for decades – including in colder countries like Sweden and Norway.

There have been some media stories about heat pumps not working, which experts put down to inappropriate or poor installation. That’s why it’s important we increase the number of skilled installers, and make sure heat pumps are always installed under the MCS certification scheme.

Modern heat pumps can be fitted in any type of home, from detached houses to high rise flats. An air source heat pump is about the same size as an air conditioning unit, so space shouldn’t be an issue for most people.

However, in order for a heat pump to work efficiently, your home needs to be well insulated to keep as much heat in as possible.

How much do heat pumps cost?

With the £5,000 grants announced by the government, one energy supplier says it will get the cost of a heat pump down to the same as a new combi boiler. And in a home with decent insulation, a new heat pump will cost less to run and maintain than a gas boiler, because they are much more efficient and have fewer moving parts.

However, without equal funding for insulation, only those who’ve already got good insulation (or can afford to add it) will be able to take that step.

So at the moment, getting a heat pump is already a great option for people who have some spare cash. But the government could make some changes that’d make them more affordable. See the next question for more on this.

What’s getting in the way of the UK switching to heat pumps?

The UK needs to adopt heat pumps as quickly as possible, but right now there are three big things slowing us down: funding, training… and a deadline.

Funding

By cutting down on planet-heating pollution, every gas boiler that’s replaced with a heat pump makes the world a bit better for everyone. So the government should make it as cheap and easy as possible for everyone to do it. For starters, that means:

  • Fully covering the upfront costs of heat pumps and insulation for people on low incomes.
  • Offering more help for all households towards heat pump and insulation costs. The government’s current plan only has enough funding for 0.3% of the UK’s homes.
  • Other incentives such as lower Stamp Duty on more energy efficient homes, or not charging VAT on heat pumps and insulation.
  • Moving the extra charges that are currently added to electricity bills onto gas bills instead. This would make it even cheaper to run a heat pump, while leaving dual fuel bills the same.

With the right support, we should see heat pump costs plummet (like they did for offshore wind and solar energy) as the industry scales up. And unlike some past efforts, these schemes need to be reliable, so customers and businesses can plan ahead without worrying that the funding will suddenly be cancelled.

Training

As the UK’s heat pump industry is in its early years, we don’t have enough experienced tradespeople to install and service millions of new heat pumps. To get around this, the government and industry should work together on a massive skills training programme, so everyone’s new heat pump gets fitted quickly and works well.

A deadline

Moving a whole industry over to a new technology is a huge job, and like with any difficult task, a hard deadline will make it easier to plan. The government should announce a ban on installing new gas boilers by the early 2030s, (like it did with petrol and diesel cars and vans) so the industry has a clear timetable for making the necessary changes.

Heat pumps create warm homes and good jobs

Doing all this isn’t just the right thing to do for the climate. It’ll give more people an opportunity for skilled, meaningful work, and make our homes nicer to live in. Greenpeace-commissioned research has shown that installing the 900,000 heat pumps we need to meet our climate targets would create 138,600 new jobs, and bring a £10bn boost to the UK economy by 2030. New government funding will only provide 90,000 heat pumps over three years, falling far short of the pace of change we urgently need to see.

Whenever we’re talking about spending money to tackle climate change, it’s also important to remember the huge costs of not acting. To give just two examples, 2020’s Storm Ciara cost the UK nearly £2 billion in damage. And the NHS spends £1.4 billion every year on treatments for conditions arising from bad housing.

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