UK heat pump sales are the lowest in Europe – why?

Heat pump sales are surging throughout Europe, except the UK where gas interest-inspired myths about heat pumps hold sway. Heat pump sales are the lowest per household in the UK in all of the 21 countries covered by a report produced by the European Heat Pump Association. Sales in 21 European countries have doubled in 2021 compared to 2016.

One-quarter of the European heating market for new heating installations is now supplied by heat pumps, and that proportion is rapidly increasing. If a quarter of new heating installations in the UK were heat pumps, there would be over 400,000 installed every year, compared to no more than around 60,000 in the UK in 2021.

So why is the UK so laggardly? One factor has been that the UK for many years enjoyed cheap natural gas supplies relative to electricity, a fact which has made heat pumps less financially attractive. But the factor has now disappeared as the difference between the costs of natural gas and electricity has declined. What we are left with are two things; widespread myths about heat pumps and weak Government policy in support of them.

One myth about heat pumps in the UK, that the UK housing is too inefficient and thus unsuitable, is dispelled by figures published by the European Commission, reproduced by IRENA (page 20). These show that UK heating needs, even for quite old houses, are no greater, and often lower, than European countries which have high levels of demand for heat pumps. Demand for heat pumps is increasing most rapidly in the countries with the coldest winters.

The other reason is the incessant mythology put about by gas interests and their supporters. They ignore their own industry’s failure to ensure that good insulation is put in houses where boilers are installed. Instead they harp on (hypocritically) about heat pumps being installed in badly insulated houses.

There is also a big problem with Government policy delivery mechanisms. These have been slowed down or distorted under pressure from gas interests and their supporters.  In Scotland, all new homes will have to have non-fossil heating in 2024, but there’s still no clear policy to implement this in England.

The Government says that from 2026 fossil fuel boilers will be banned in new buildings in England, but the legislation to do this has not been published. The gas industry is busy trying to divert such efforts, including attempts to get the government to allow for truly mythological ‘hydrogen ready boilers’ (see previous blog post). That can allow business as usual with gas boilers being installed in hew homes with ‘hydrogen ready’ stickers on them.

On the other hand, there is no obligation on energy suppliers to encourage the installation of heat pumps. If there were then heat pumps could be delivered to existing dwellings a lot more cheaply than what is being done at present. There is a so-called ‘boiler upgrade scheme’ with subsidies for heat pump installations. However, the work is carried out solely under the direction of independent heat pump contractors. If the heat pumps were installed under an obligation given to energy suppliers and builders then they would have the incentive to deliver the installations at a much cheaper cost.

By David Toke

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