The time for heat pumps is definitely now

In January 2013, almost 8 years ago, I wrote an article for this very magazine about my belief that 2013 was the ‘Year of the Heat Pump’. As I’m sure many would agree, it turned out that 2013 however, wasn’t to be that year. Whilst it was indeed a very good year for heat pump installations (approx 17,000 installations covering ground and air source), it certainly wasn’t the magic year I believed it would become. Looking back, it’s been really interesting to see the changes in the landscape since the article all those years ago.

While the heat pump industry was still in it’s infancy, the teams at the Energy Saving Trust, DECC (now part of DBEIS), beama, GSHPA, HPA, HHIC and UHMA pioneered the industries first heat emitter guide, to assist with sizing and selecting heating emitters, which in our case predominantly meant radiators. This was a brilliant document which really helped to simplify emitter sizing, at a time when the industry was just finding its feet. While we don’t use this guide anymore, it was brilliant for new and seasoned installers alike. Nowadays radiator manufacturers produce their own lower mean water temperature look up tables, which makes selecting a radiator for a low carbon heating source, as easy as selecting one for a conventional fossil fuel boiler.

Just over 1 year on from my original article, in April 2014, the renewable heat incentive was launched for air source heat pumps. Much anticipated (I had personally waited since Chris Huhne himself had discussed it on TV in October 2010) it genuinely didn’t fail to deliver as far as air source heat pumps were concerned. Granted, there wasn’t a huge tariff (7.3p/kWh if memory serves on launch) as with some other micro generation technologies, but it was enough to generally cover around 80% of the supply and install cost of an air source heat pump with brand new domestic hot water cylinder. Fast forward to the present and the tariff is around 32% higher now at 10.85p/kWh. There might be a 20,000kWh cap these days, but as the vast majority of homes fall under this limit, it’s not a massive concern. As you may be aware, the Renewable Heat Incentive is due to end in March 2022, and be replaced by an upfront grant scheme, known as the Clean Heat Grant. 

Between 2013 and March 2019, there was a lot of action behind the scenes, but from the outside looking in, a lot of the time it felt very much like it was steady as it goes. The industry increased at a steady pace. More and more heat pumps were installed year on year. But there was no huge spike in heat pump deployment or even huge advances in heat pump equipment itself. The vast majority of manufacturers shifted from R407C & R410A to R32 (some opting for R290/Propane), and equipment got quieter and more efficient. Again though, from the outside, to many it may look like business as usual. That was until March 2019. In March we had the very exciting announcement from then Chancellor, Philip Hammond, that fossil fuel boilers cannot be installed in new build homes and they should not be connected to the gas network, effectively ending gas boilers, by 2025. 

Wind forward 14 months, and the UK is coming out of Lockdown 1.0. This was marked, in July with the announcement of the green homes grant, which then lead on to the governments 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution in November. At the time of writing (8th March 2021) the Green Homes Grant hasn’t been the panacea some believed it would be. Aside from shifting requirements for compliance to the scheme, the final straw was the slow to zero payment to installers for a significant proportion of installations. In the fullness of time, I hope that this scheme is relaunched with a revived fervour, but personally, I fear that regenerating confidence in the scheme will be an uphill battle. In brighter news though, the 10 point plan announced by the government in November highlighted a number of exciting developments for heat pumps in the coming years, namely a commitment to support 50,000 jobs by 2030 in the green economy and an ambition to install 600,000 heat pumps annually by 2028. On top of this, we also have the Future Homes Standard which is intended to ensure that homes are ‘zero carbon ready’. 

So, aside from some of the legislation and mandates discussed by government and others, what does the future of heat pumps look like?

Personally, I’m very excited about the dynamic / agile tariff offerings provided by companies such as Octopus Energy. Launched in FEB 2018, Octopus’s agile tariff, was, at the time the worlds first dynamic tariff, which enable customers to benefit from half hourly pricing. Anecdotally, we have seen average pence per kWh figures of 10.5p/kWh just with a change in tariff when using a heat pump. With time on their hands though, consumers are able to switch their heat pump on at cheap times, and off at peak times. If done correctly, they can see average electricity prices of around 9p/kWh. Where it gets really clever is when you look at using smart hardware such as that offered by the team at Homely Energy to automate this switching. On test, the team have seen average prices of around 8p/kWh. Compared to a 90% gas boiler at approx 3.5p/kWh and a 3.5SCOP heat pump you can be looking at run cost savings of around 35% over the fossil fuel burning gas boiler. Admittedly, agile tariffs and the supporting hardware are still a little while off mass adoption, but the promise for this kind of smart control of your heating is very exciting. 

Chris Higgs is Managing Director of Freedom Heat Pumps, founded in 2010, specialising in air and ground source heat pump equipment and accessories.