Electrifying home heating is a no-regrets option for Britain

By the 2030s, everyone should be benefiting from low carbon, highly efficient heating technology. Our new campaign of businesses, green finance, NGOs and consumer groups wants to make it happen faster.

By Edward Robinson

This article was originally published on BusinessGreen on 12 October 2021

The causes of the ongoing ‘energy crunch’ will be debated for many weeks. Global gas prices are spiking and likely to remain high as we head towards the European winter. In the UK, with 85 per cent of homes still heated by gas, high wholesale prices threaten to leave householders out of pocket as the price cap rises.

In the short-term, the Government must do what it can to protect households. But if we want permanently to reduce the UK’s exposure to volatile gas markets, a critical lynchpin of any future vision must be to accelerate our transition to electrified heating, deploying the ultra-efficient heat pump technology that our neighbours in chilly Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe, have been using for years. To put it simply, we are overweight gas in our national heating portfolio and need to trim our exposure. For sure, gas is still a big part of our electricity mix, but that mix is rapidly changing as cheap domestic renewables and increasingly cheap storage come online. And heat pumps teamed with smart tariffs and efficiency measures are a match made in heaven for a decarbonised and increasingly decentralised electricity network.

Our newly launched campaign of innovative energy suppliers, consumer groups and trade bodies like Energy UK is convinced that if we can accelerate the transition from gas boilers to electric heat pumps in the 2020s, British homes will end up saving hundreds of pounds on their energy bills every year. And we will cut our CO2 emissions very radically in the process.

Last week, new research from Cambridge Econometrics found that around 140,000 new jobs will be created, and the economy boosted by £9.8bn, by 2030 if the government increased plans for the deployment of heat pumps and energy efficiency measures. But we do need to step up our action.

Why heat pumps? The main reason is their extraordinary efficiency when compared with fossil fuel based technology. For every unit of electrical energy you put into an air-source heat pump the size of a large suitcase, you get 3-4 units of heat. By contrast, you have to feed a typical boiler with more than one unit of gas to get one unit of heat – and most of that gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

With so much more clean electricity coming online across the whole world – you can see why the International Energy Agency thinks heat pumps could supply around 90 per cent of global space and water heating by 2050.  

We agree, but we recognise that Britain is starting from a lower level than many countries in the EU, where over a million heat pumps are sold every year (still a small proportion of total ‘heating’ sales but rising at a staggering 12 per cent year-on-year). Interestingly, it is some of the coldest countries in Europe, like Sweden and Norway, where heat pumps are the most popular. 

The Prime Minister has announced a commendable installation target of 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028. With the right plans we could go far beyond this and even surpass the 900,000 recommended by the government’s expert advisers at the Climate Change Committee.

Our newly launched campaign to Electrify Heat knows that the technology already exists to save British households thousands of pounds on their heating over the lifetime of a heat pump, compared to a gas alternative (and they can already last up to a decade longer). The task is to put rocket boosters under the market in the UK to enable it to expand quickly. This is what will bring installation costs tumbling. Some of the most innovative British companies are signed up and already working hard, from Octopus Energy to Ovo, E.ON, Scottish Power and Good Energy, alongside organisations like Energy Saving Trust and the energy sector trade body Energy UK.

The great thing about expanding electricity for home heating is that it is a no-regrets option. We have the tech and we know it works. The task is to deploy, deploy, deploy.

Edward Robinson is lead spokesman for Electrify Heat, a new campaign pushing for the fastest possible switch to affordable, zero carbon, clean and safe heating for UK homes.