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Heat pumps: it’s complicated, especially in rural areas

  • by JW

“Part of the problem is that heat pumps are misunderstood. There are many myths about them, spread on social media and via newspapers. Many are false, though a few are at least partially correct. What are these myths?” [New Statesman]


The heat pump technology has been around for a long time now – with these pages some five years ago looking at a project in Hackney to install a heat pump to supply heating for new facilities in Abney Park. Last year they actually started work on the project to make council parks and buildings more sustainable. Sounds very straightforward:

The ground source heat pump works by absorbing natural heat from the ground and transferring the heat into buildings to provide heating and hot water in a low-carbon, energy efficient way. It will provide the park’s new cafe and community space with 100% of their heating and hot water all year round.

Heat pumps sound like a good thing – until the implications of implementing a broader policy are considered in country areas which are off-grid:

Plans to force rural property owners in England to replace oil-fired heating systems with heat pumps almost a decade earlier than their counterparts who are connected to the gas grid have been branded ‘unfair’ by rural lobbyists… Property owners on the gas grid who face a breakdown [of their conventional boilers] will be able to replace like-for-like until 2035. 

The concerns are mounting up – again with questions around the viability of transitioning to more planet-friendly household heating in rural areas as highlighted recently by the Rural Services Network:

‘The UK’s Climate Change Committee (UKCCC) highlighted high heat pump cost, the low number of trained heat pump installers and the lack of energy efficiency measures like insulation, which help to improve heat pump efficiency, as the main reasons for low installation.’

Well, the Government currently has an ambition to ban sales of new gas boilers from 2035, with those properties currently off the gas grid, being unable to access fossil fuel heating from 2026.  In 2021, one in 4 properties were off the gas grid which could leave a large % of rural residents needing to find alternative sources of heat in the coming years.

Heat pumps are an efficient way to heat your home, provided your home is energy efficient, and there are a high number of energy inefficient properties in rural areas.  In addition, it may be more difficult for them to install energy efficiency measures if properties are in National Parks or are listed meaning that the heat pump won’t work as effectively. The Government has schemes to help householders with the cost of installing a heat pump, but this won’t take into account the energy efficiency measures that may be needed.

Meanwhile, away from these practical points, the issues around heat pumps are getting very complicated. Sky News reports on the latest figures, stating that the UK has installed a record number of heat pumps and solar panels; whilst the BBC looks at the truth about heat pumps and the power needed to run them:

Heat pumps produce hot water at lower temperatures than gas boilers. That means to get the heat into your home, it is a good idea to have bigger radiators. And you will keep more of the heat in if your home is well-insulated and has double glazing. But doing that additional work can massively add to your costs.

And there is another issue. Unit for unit, electricity typically costs three times as much as gas. That means even though your new heat pump is three times as efficient as your gas boiler it costs about the same to run.

And in the meantime, the issue is getting very politicised, with the Telegraph reporting that a major heat pump supplier attacks plans to replace gas boilers; while the Guardian suggests that the gas boiler lobby is trying to delay the UK’s heat pump plans; the Express notes the heat pump warning over the staggering hidden cost to UK households; while the New Statesman gives us 22 heat pump myths explained:

In the race to a green economy, the UK government has identified heat pumps as the key technology to replace gas boilers, which is how most UK households are heated. In fact, the government has committed itself to installing 600,000 of them a year by 2028. Yet deployment in the UK remains at very low levels, despite growth. The UK ranks bottom in the European heat pump league table, as per figures for 2022.

Part of the problem is that heat pumps are misunderstood. There are many myths about them, spread on social media and via newspapers. Many are false, though a few are at least partially correct. What are these myths?

Today’s Telegraph looks at a specific rural home to see what can be done – and the solutions are not easy or cheap – with energy consultants giving some practical advice:

When Ms Morgan bought her house in Somerset three years ago, she was pleased that it ran using only renewable energy thanks to her electric boiler – unlike neighbouring properties which still use heating oil, which the Government hopes to start phasing out from 2026.

But supposedly greener energy comes at a price, and in winter Ms Morgan’s heating bill sets her back £1,000 a month. The consultant’s home is made with stone walls and floors, which can take a long time to heat, and are notoriously expensive to insulate further. “I thought I was doing the right thing using renewables, but the winter energy bill is really high,” she says. “I suspect I need to change the windows and doors and install solar panels but am wondering where to start and how to fund it.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms Morgan’s home has one of the worst energy ratings possible, with an F-rated energy performance certificate (EPC) – just one band below the lowest rank. But the potentially astronomical upfront cost of the renovations needed to bring her energy rating up and bills down is daunting, especially since Ms Morgan is single.

“It feels like I’m stuck between high energy bills or high finance costs, which are prohibitive for single people,” says Ms Morgan. “I suspect I’ll have to end up replacing the windows and look at replacing the boiler but that lot together is about £45,000 and financing that on my own in this economy is a lot.”