Heat pumps deserve to be dumped

Connor Tomlinson

October 20, 2021

The new targets of the UK government’s Net Zero crusade are household gas boilers. Electric heat pumps aim to drive the natural gas boilers heating 90 per cent of British homes to extinction. The government has set the target of installing 600,000 heat pumps annually by 203. Net Zero Watch has warned the subsidies propping up renewables—which saw a 50 per cent production deficit since 2020—will be factored into gas bills to artificially drive demand for heat pump installation.  

The effectiveness of heat pumps are also contingent on insulation; which the millions of properties built in Britain prior to the post-War period will struggle to have, due to being without cavity walls. Nation-wide property retrofits are projected to cost between £500 billion and £2 trillion. This is astronomical for a policy which will reduce global emissions by only 0.2 per cent. (So, if you thought Insulate Britain’s eco-socialist cause was daft before, this really puts it into perspective.) 

Meanwhile, China is increasing coal production across 221 mines, causing a projected 16 per cent increase in global emissions by 2030. We are undoing years of raised living standards and increased life expectancy, only for our main international adversary to not show up at COP26, and undo our sacrifices eighty-fold.

The government grant of £5000 to cover half the expected installation costs will also become a double-dividend tax on lower-income households. Families who cannot afford the remaining £5000 for the unnecessary heating system change will see their energy bills and income taxes subsidise the installation of pumps in higher-income households who can afford to split the bill.  

The gap in affordability between high and low-income households means the grant will only cover the installation of 30,000 pumps a year; 570,000 short of government goals. As with all planned-economic environmental policies, pie-in-the-sky targets remain unreachable, the risks incurred impair social mobility, and the rewards accrued benefit only the upper echelons well-off enough to weather the storm.  

There are also practical limitations on the efficacy of this policy. An engineer skill shortage has been produced by a deficit in training conducted during lockdown. This means the available hands to meet installation demands will be overworked and in short supply by the time the grant comes into effect next April. Ground-source heat pumps also require space for outdoor installation; including digger and borehole machinery to be able to access the property. These renovations may require homeowners seek planning permission from local councils. The five-to-ten-years additional lifecycle than the average boiler doesn’t offset these higher installation costs, nor negate these logistical issues.  

Air-source heat pumps are less costly to install, but prove less effective in the months where central heating is most needed. With less naturally warm air to extract during British winters, your heating system will need to work harder at higher running costs to stop you turning yourself into a blanket burrito. They also may need routine de-icing to ensure the extractor fan works properly.  

Despite all these impediments, gas boilers are set to join join petrol cars in being banned from sale by 2035. This punitive policy packages the potential pitfalls of prematurely adopting renewables technologies into essential consumer choices. Energy protectionism artificially manipulates market activity toward the state’s preferred ideological outcome. This will burden households two-fold: pricing them out of affordable and reliable heating, and incurring additional costs when heat pumps fall short of generation expectations-.  

Abandoning the subsidies which impair innovation—by removing market competition—and repatriating battery production from the present 80 per cent made in China would be a solid start in improving the future development trajectory of renewables. But, while they remain expensive and unreliable, natural gas must continue to be a staple of British households’ energy consumption. Sourcing it from our own North Sea reserves, instead of via unsavoury alliances with human rights violators like Russia, would make the process less carbon intensive, and more morally palatable.  

But while smarter fuel procurement fixes supply-side issues, what alternative technologies can be used to heat homes?  

District heating systems, using a central plant room for multiple properties, should be incorporated into newbuilds. Running on electric or Combined Heat & Power (CHP) systems could produce 30% less emissions to generate the same level of heat with 34 percent less fuel. CHP plants can also achieve efficiency of over 80 percent—by retaining and using heat and energy otherwise lost as atmospheric emissions and during distribution to end users—compared to the typical 50 percent efficiency of conventional boiler systems. 

As for renovating existing properties: government should hold off on extorting the taxpayer for subsidies, and banning functional boilers, on not just a principle but also a practical level. The hype around heat pumps are currently just hot air. Time we scrap plans for mass adoption until they catch up to gas. 

Author

  • Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research at the British Conservation Alliance, and a political commentator with Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in C3 Magazine, AIER, and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

Written by Connor Tomlinson

Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research at the British Conservation Alliance, and a political commentator with Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in C3 Magazine, AIER, and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson

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