COVID-19 has played havoc with much of the building industry over the last four months and the damage to the heat pump sector has been considerable.
However, the impact hasn’t come from COVID-19 alone, but from a “perfect storm” of the pandemic, Non-Domestic RHI tariff degressions and the appearance of yawning gaps in government policy with respect to the decarbonisation of heat. Of these, it’s the lack of a long-term heat strategy that is the single most damaging concern.
The automotive industry has been given nearly twenty years’ notice of a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the UK. This might yet be brought forward, but the long-term strategy is well and truly “flagged”. As a result, investment in new drive trains has largely swung from combustion to electric vehicles. The outcome is that manufacturers are reporting, in increasing numbers, that they will be 100% electric well before the actual enforcement date.
Government, providing a genuine long-term strategy, has delivered an outcome that would almost certainly have been resisted as unrealistic, had it been imposed by regulation. This is all the more impressive because it is happening against a backdrop of very limited zero charging infrastructure at the time of the policy announcement.
Contrast this with the policy landscape for heat (and cooling) in the built environment. The current government approach appears to be centred on a fixation that there is a choice to be made between electrification and hydrogen, and that this choice can be deferred until 2025. In my view, this is a false premise on both fronts.
If we are to achieve Net Zero 2050, we will need all the technologies currently available (including electrification with heat pumps), all the technologies under development (including hydrogen) and several that we have not yet considered. So there is no choice to be made, and we simply cannot afford to wait until 2025 to “floor” the (electric) accelerator pedal for heat.
The choice to be made is what to do with each technology for the best use of equally valuable resources.
Heat pump deployment at scale needs long-term and steady policy for the built environment which supports electrification. All the seasoned sector watchers, the Committee for Climate Change, National Grid, the Energy Systems Catapult, many generators and DNOs, and just this week the IPPR thinktank believe that heat pump numbers have to reach the millions, if we are to decarbonise our homes and workplaces.
Grid reinforcement can be accommodated alongside that required for EV charging and the investment impact can be minimised by widespread adoption of thermal storage for load shifting.
External investment is there to be had if the policy framework for heat and cooling is fashioned appropriately. Infrastructure specialists are looking for new asset classes, which ground and water source heat pump systems, in particular, can deliver. Such infrastructure would be delivered by UK labour, providing excellent, long-term employment opportunities – across the country. And by having long-term visibility of a growth strategy is key to persuading existing gas engineers and technicians to retrain.
The current, and recently consulted upon, government proposals for heat pump support are, in themselves, just not ambitious enough to achieve the market growth required. The industry needs sight of other vital policy levers such as the revisions to Part L, the Future Homes Standard, the Heat & Buildings strategy paper and the government responses to the latest Committee on Climate Change advice and reports, to be able to judge what else is required.
Subsidies have not served the heat pump sector well over the last decade and so achieving a subsidy-free marketplace has to be the goal. The heat pump sector needs to work with Government to help formulate a genuine strategy for the next thirty years to decarbonise heating and cooling and to ensure that no segments of the market are left behind. It’s a considerable task, and will take effort and some courage, but the size of the prize will make it all the more worthwhile in the end.