It might seem strange to claim that one of the key weapons in mankind’s fight against climate change was first invented in the middle of the 19th century, but it’s true. Lord Kelvin – famous physicist, engineer and beard-grower, who put his name to an absolute temperature scale and formulated the first and second laws of thermodynamics, can also claim a huge amount of credit for the invention of heat pumps.
He described their function in 1853, and today they will be an absolutely vital, core component of the drive to decarbonise the heating and cooling of buildings in the UK, Europe and across the world.
A modern CO2 heat pump releases 83g of carbon per kilowatt hour of energy produced. A natural gas boiler produces 250g. The only widely available heating technology that can compete with a heat pump is solar thermal, which produces 25g. And, as you can imagine, solar is not the most reliable year-round energy source here in the UK.
Heat pumps are efficient, they’re low carbon, and they’re available at all scales. The government has said that they aim to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028, but we’re way behind pace to hit that figure right now. Across the channel in Europe, heat pumps are far more common and being installed at a far faster rate. Why is that, and what can we do to catch up?
The Heat Pump Effect Across Europe
If you compare the carbon emissions of the UK’s heating sector versus our European neighbours, we don’t come off well. Our emissions in g/KWH are high (just under 200g/kwh compared to 100 for France and less than 40 in Sweden for example) and our rate of improvement since 1990 is, frankly, a bit embarrassing. Whereas many European countries such as Denmark have more than halved the carbon emissions in their heating industry in that time, we’ve managed a reduction of around 15%.
There are two main reasons for that. Far too much of our built environment relies on gas boilers, and the proportion of our heat that comes from renewable sources is very low (less than 10%).
The single biggest thing we can do to improve this situation is to install far more heat pumps in both domestic and commercial buildings. That’s because heat pumps don’t use natural gas (or any other high carbon fuel), and because our power supply is already well on the way to decarbonisation, the electricity a heat pump will use to function is going to come, in large part, from renewable sources.
To quote Thomas Nowak, secretary general of the European Heat Pump association:
“Heat pump technologies are ready to decarbonise residential and commercial buildings as well as industrial processes… They complement the advantages of district heating and help stabilise the grid – all with European-based technologies”.
Heat pump installation is accelerating rapidly across Europe for some time, and it’s working. Since 2015 there has been an average 12% annual average growth according to the European Heat Pump association. Heat pumps have been especially popular in Nordic countries – Sweden has 1.9 million, Finland 968,000, Denmark 390,000 and Estonia 179,000. France bought 275,000 heat pumps in 2018 alone, which is more than are currently installed across the entire UK.
We’re getting left behind, and it’s time we caught up.
Why Heat Pumps Use is Expanding In Europe
There are practical, political and cultural reasons why Europe is installing so many more heat pumps than us.
In the Nordic countries, lack of gas resources and the price of those gas resources means heat pumps can more directly compete with other forms of heating on a pure cost basis. There is also, in general, a wider cultural acceptance of electricity as an energy carrier for heating than here.
There is also access to low-carbon power to consider. For example France has access to huge amounts of nuclear power, and the Nordic countries and Germany have access to huge amounts of hydro-electric power. This makes electricity-based heating more cost effective and environmentally friendly, and heat pumps are a leading method of electric heating.
Domestic gas prices are also, overall, much higher in the EU than the UK, so natural gas boilers are less attractive for consumers.
Finally, the EU and individual European governments have put far more onus on improving building standards and disincentivising fossil fuel use than we have in the UK.
Heat Pump roll-out in UK
In the UK we have made significant progress in the decarbonisation of power generation, but not so for heat. 85% of the 29 million homes in the UK use natural gas for heating. In the commercial sector, 62% of the energy used in non-domestic buildings comes from non-electrical sources (eg natural gas, oil).*
A lot of this is political. We’ve known for a long time how to build low-carbon buildings, and how effective heat pumps are, but we haven’t made it a priority. General awareness of the importance of replacing natural gas boilers in the population is low – just 5% of people in the UK say gas heating is something the government should focus on in the fight to reduce emissions. That compares to 56% who pointed to petrol and diesel vehicles – but gas heating has broadly the same emissions impact as all cars and lorries in the UK.
The government’s target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028 is an encouraging step, but we are a long way off the pace from hitting that target. We need to step up – and that’s going to take more awareness and more clamour across the construction, facilities management, property investment and property management industries. For the good of the planet, we need to pull our collective fingers out.
Clade provides heat pumps for a range of sectors including both residential and commercial. For more information contact us.
*Business Energy Statistical Summary, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 2018