Heat pumps have become the eco fiasco of the decade

March 16, 2023

Heat Pumps© Provided by The Telegraph
Originally published by The Telegram, UK. Story by Matthew Lynn.

No one denies that changing the way we heat our homes will play a major role in eventually achieving a carbon neutral economy. Heating our houses accounts for 14pc of the UK’s carbon emissions, so unless we can find a clever offsetting scheme or make drastic changes to other parts of our economy, we will eventually have to find an alternative to the gas boilers that three-quarters of British households use right now

It will be the biggest change to the housing stock since we switched from town to natural gas in the 1970s. It will require billions of pounds in investment. It is, to put it mildly, important that we get it right.

Right now, the Government’s big idea is that we should all switch to heat pumps. These are electric devices that work like a fridge in reverse, taking warmth out of the air and then blasting it around our homes. Huge subsidies of up to £5,000 per home have been thrown at persuading us all to make the switch, and a target, because inevitably there is a target, of 600,000 installations a year has been set.

Indeed, for new houses, gas boilers will be banned from 2025, and existing homes may not be far behind. By the end of the decade, we may well be forcing people to rip out old heating systems. And yet amid some very stiff competition, the drive to install heat pumps as the country’s main source of domestic heating is turning into the greatest eco fiasco of the decade.

The latest blow to the Government’s agenda was delivered by Bosch. The German industrial giant has global sales of almost €90bn (£79bn), engineering expertise that stretches back to the 19th century, and is one of the world’s major suppliers of domestic heating systems.

By any reasonable standards, it can be said to know a thing or two about how to keep homes warm. And yet Vonjy Rajakoba, the managing director of Bosch UK, has pointed out an obvious problem: for heat pumps to work well in the cold, “you need well-insulated homes, [and] you also need space for heat pumps for the external unit”. Very true. Now, which homes lack these features?

Well, older ones. And as it happens, Britain, a country blessedly free of the ravages of war, has an exceptionally old housing stock compared to most major economies, with almost two fifths of our private homes built before 1945. Rajakoba, in turn, has noted that for Britain’s “fleet of Victorian houses or period houses and so on”, Bosch UK thinks “hydrogen, or in the interim hydrogen-ready boilers, are the solution”.

But the problems don’t stop there. Heat pumps don’t generate nearly as much heat as the equipment they are replacing, meaning that homes need to be insulated as well – and as we’ve just noted, it’s often virtually impossible to upgrade homes dating back to the 19th or even 18th century to the required standard. And insulation is not the only added expense involved.

The Government might be subsidising these things like there’s no tomorrow, but the current offers don’t cover the extra expense of installations or the additional running costs of a heat pump compared to a traditional gas boiler. Even with the grant, a pump based system could set you back more than £9,000 compared with less than £3,000 for a traditional alternative.

On top of that, we don’t have enough plumbers trained to install them all, and skills training is so poor in this country, and labour shortages already so severe, there is little prospect of that being fixed any time soon (indeed, the latest data showed the number of trained plumbing and heating engineers in the UK is currently falling by 4.1 per cent a year).

And even if by some miracle we did manage to get them all installed and they all worked, it’s not even clear we’d be able to generate enough electricity to power them all. We can’t seem to get a nuclear power station built or find a sensible way to manage the intermittent production of wind turbines.

It’s all too reminiscent of the HS2 debacle: an unnecessary product, consuming vast quantities of money, which is unsuitable for the UK, and which won’t be delivered on time or anything close to it. In short, a colossal white elephant.

What’s particularly frustrating is that it really doesn’t need to be this complicated. Natural gas is perfectly adequate for domestic heating, and, with efforts to capture and store carbon, as a transitional fuel. Given the floods of investment pouring from both the United States and the European Union into green technologies, with both blocs throwing more than $300 billion in subsidies at green businesses, we can expect some pretty rapid technological development on the market, with plenty of innovation and “green energy” freely available via interconnector from our neighbours.

There’s no need for the UK to be a world leader, and no advantage from trying to be one. In fact, it would be far better for Britain to let other countries take the lead, and then install whatever replacement for gas heating proves itself the most efficient in the global marketplace. Trying to guess which technology will win out just binds our hands in the future. What if it turns out that hydrogen, which is better suited to our existing housing stock, is the global winner?

The blunt truth is that the UK is making an almighty mess of the transition to net zero, and harming both ordinary households and the economy in the process. Our homes are too old and too difficult to insulate for heat pumps to be the answer, the technology is too expensive, we don’t have the plumbers to install them or the pipeline to train more, or a real plan to fix our creaking electricity grid in time to provide the necessary power.

It is increasingly clear that there is only one solution. We should abandon our increasingly deranged target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year before any more damage is done, and leave people to decide for themselves.