16 August 2023

Britain’s heating revolution is on the right track, but it’s time to scale up

By Megan Batchelor

Without heat pumps, we will struggle to protect Britons from future gas crises and decarbonise household heating systems. Rather than subjecting them to constant review, it’s time we got behind the heating revolution that has already swept across Scandinavia.
Critics complain that heat pumps will never take off or match boilers when it comes to keeping people warm. Still more scaremonger that gas boilers will be ‘ripped out’ of people’s homes. Despite these bleak warnings, heat pumps have already proven their worth in other northern European countries. Already some 60% of Norwegian, 43% of Swedish and 41% of Finnish homes use heat pumps.
What do all of these countries have in common? They have the coldest winters in Europe. Air source heat pumps can be a gentler way of heating your home – radiators will feel pleasantly warm, not scalding hot – but they certainly keep people warm. If they can keep the Finns cosy at an average of -9°C in January, we Brits should have few problems.
At the moment the UK is bottom of the table below its European neighbours when it comes rolling out heat pumps, contributing to our households being the worst hit in western Europe by the energy crisis. In 2022, around 55,000 British households bought a heat pump. In the same year France sold more than 620,000, Italy over 510,000, and Germany almost 280,000. That lag in take-up is partly why costs are still too high; our market simply hasn’t scaled up yet.
The cost of heat pumps is a key reason that the target to phase out the installation of new gas gas boilers by 2035 is coming under increased scrutiny. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a ban, and the target will only be met if the industry reduces costs.
But while we need to ensure targets are deliverable, bold goals are still needed to set the pace and direction. Our reliance on gas boilers to heat nearly 80% of British households – with oil heating 4%, primarily in rural homes – is why we were so exposed when the price of fossil fuels rocketed last year. Rolling out electric-powered heat pumps will allow people to benefit from cheap, clean, and secure renewables as we scale up wind and solar power.
Advocates of heat pumps need to be clear about the challenge ahead though. The upfront cost still remains a barrier for people wishing to ditch their boiler; an air-source heat pump can cost anywhere between £8,000-15,000, including installation, while a new gas boiler system costs between £1,500-£3,000. At the height of the gas crisis, when prices rocketed thirteen-fold, the most efficient heat pumps reached price parity with traditional boilers over their lifetimes, and installing a heat pump in an energy-efficient home could help cut its gas demand by by 80%. The Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which offers people up to £5,000 to install a heat pump, has made their upfront costs comparable with gas boilers.
The UK is still only at the start of a heating revolution, and we remain well behind the Government’s target of installing 600,000 per year by 2028. But by helping scale up the market, we can lower prices so more people can switch. Last year’s decision to scrap VAT on insulation, solar panels and heat pumps has already cut costs. Ministers might also consider a rural uplift to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, to help larger, draughtier homes not connected to the gas grid move from oil boilers to heat pumps more affordably.
It’s time we ditched the negativity about heat pumps. Nobody will be forced to rip out their gas boiler, but if we had been quicker at scaling up the market, we would have cheaper options to shield many working families from soaring gas prices. We are now on the right track, but we have more to do to catch up with our northern European neighbours.

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Megan Batchelor is Climate Programme Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.