Don’t be left in the cold: Unlocking the potential of heat pumps

April 24, 2023

The renewable energy transition is critical to a global net-zero target by 2050. It involves significant structural changes to the supply and consumption of energy to move away from fossil fuels (eg oil, natural gas and coal) in order to halt the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. While renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, are the leading alternatives for accelerating decarbonisation, there’s an argument that more attention should be paid to the humble heat pump.

Heat pumps have risen in popularity, as a critical technology to decarbonise our heat and domestic hot water by 2050. They can be up to 400% more efficient than gas boilers, and can run off a decarbonised grid or onsite renewable energy production. As a result, heat pumps offer more efficient heating, and significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime, compared to natural gas boilers.

These shifts are being supported and accelerated by policy initiatives such as the UK’s gas boiler ban, which prohibits the installation of gas boilers in new-builds from 2025. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act (2022) incentivises energy-efficiency home improvement, including heat pump installation, through tax credits.

In addition, government investments and funding are accelerating the renewable energy transition; for example, the newly formed UK Government Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has announced a £170 million investment for established technologies such as offshore wind. Furthermore, funding the replacement of gas boilers in existing buildings through schemes such as the Green Homes Grant and Public Sector Decarbonisation Schemes can help to break down financial barriers to installing low-carbon technologies. Cranfield University utilised a £4.9 million grant to install an air source heat pump, LED lighting and solar panels, which are estimated to reduce emissions by 1,214 tonnes annually.

However, in order for broader adoption of heat pumps to be successful, there are several key challenges that will take collaborative action to solve:

Skills gap:
There is a significant skills gap to fill, to install these technological solutions on a large scale. For example, the International Energy Agency estimated that 1.3 million skilled workers will be needed globally by 2030, to keep up with the growing demand for heat pumps. That’s almost triple the current workforce.

Heat pumps are currently more expensive to install than traditional gas boilers. This cost becomes even larger when considering the need to retrofit existing buildings, as upgrading building fabric and emitters to support the new technology only increases this upfront cost. Furthermore, the switch from gas to electricity also increases the running cost of buildings.

Global infrastructure desperately needs an upgrade to manage the electrification of heat and transport. For example, the UK grid must vastly increase its capacity to accommodate this shift. Investments in enabling infrastructure to prepare for this shift are vital to electrification and, consequently, the renewable energy transition.

Behavioural changes:
Heat pumps operate at a lower temperature than traditional boilers, requiring users to run them for more extended periods.

Even with new technologies, changing our behaviours and how we move through the world will be critical to helping us achieve a global net zero target.

Author: Indie Channa