April 25, 2024

Heat pumps are hot property in Europe. Does Britain have cold feet? | Energy

The humble heat pump has emerged as a powerful tool in Europe’s mission to wean itself off gas heating. EU countries including France, Italy and Poland have witnessed a boom in the number of heat pumps being installed in homes, each one helping to reduce Europe’s reliance on gas – in particular that supplied by Russia.

But they have not been universally welcomed. A sceptical public and a muddled policy landscape have made the UK Europe’s heat pump laggard. And in Germany, heat pumps have emerged as a flashpoint in the country’s culture wars as the far right opposes the costs of switching away from fossil fuels.

The UK has begun to show signs of interest in recent weeks after the government boosted its grant scheme by 50%. But across Europe, as often-lucrative government support schemes are tightened, heat pump sales are starting to cool after record sales last year.

The European Heat Pump Association (EHPA), which collates data from industry groups across Europe, reported a record year of heat pump sales across the continent for 2022. The market continued to grow in the first half of 2023, but signs of falling sales began to emerge in the third quarter, it said.

“It is concerning,” said Thomas Nowak, head of the EHPA. “This is completely the wrong direction for the heat pump market and policymakers are not sufficiently alarmed by the situation. No one seems to be willing to take real action.”

France dominates heat pump sales

In France, heat pumps outsold fossil fuel boilers for the first time last year, according to the International Energy Agency; this was the first year of France’s national ban on gas boilers in new buildings.

The boom in France’s heat pump sales made headlines in Britain after a report by the UK’s energy installer accreditation body, MCS, earlier this year found that France had installed heat pumps at 10 times the rate of the UK. Only 55,000 heat pumps were sold in Britain last year, compared with more than 620,000 in France. In the first half of this year French heat pump sales continued to grow compared with 2022, before dipping by 13% in the third quarter, according to the EHPA.

A map showing the countries in Europe where heat pumps were sold in their tens of thousand in 2022

The success of France’s heat pump rollout is in rooted partly in the country’s longstanding preference for electric heating over gas. The market has also benefited from “clear and decisive policy by the French government”, according to Charlotte Lee, head of the UK’s Heat Pump Association.

She pointed to France’s strict new-build standards, heat pump grants, relatively low electricity prices, and growing base of heat pump installers as key elements of the country’s success. Households can get a grant of up to €15,000 (£13,000) if they buy a ground-source heat pump for an existing property, and up to €9,000 for an air-source heat pump. The scheme is scheduled to run until 2024.

Poland and Italy emerge as fastest growing markets

France may be recording the highest number of heat pump installations but it was Italy and Poland that saw the biggest leap in sales last year. “It really was a great success story,” said Nowak.

Both Poland and Italy have seen demand for heat pumps surge in line with rocketing commodity market prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has been coupled with strong government initiatives to encourage homes and businesses to turn away from gas and coal heating.

In Poland, a government scheme to help tackle the air pollution caused by burning coal for heat offered households up to €14,420 to fit green energy solutions, including heat pumps. More than 200,000 heat pumps of all types were sold in Poland last year – just shy of the total sold in Germany, which has a population more than twice as large. Sales of home solar panels have rocketed too.

But sales have slowed to just under 77,000 in the first half of 2023 and there is no clear explanation, said Nowak. It is understood that last year’s sales figures may have included a huge number imported from China which now sit in warehouses waiting for installation orders. This could not be confirmed by the EHPA.

In Italy, the government began offering a “superbonus” scheme covering 110% of the cost of green homes upgrades, including heat pump installations, from 2020. This drove heat pump sales to more than 500,000 last year. However, earlier this year the government abruptly put an end to the scheme amid concerns that it was vulnerable to fraud running into billions of euros.

UK market comes in from the cold

If the success of the heat pump rollout in Germany, Poland and Italy can be pinned to the clear and consistent policy of their governments, the UK’s slower progress can be blamed on Westminster’s failure to support its heat pump ambitions, according to Nowak.

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“For the heat pump rollout to succeed you need a government that has a bit of a backbone. Part of the problem in the UK is the undecidedness of the government,” he said.

The UK government’s aim is to have 600,000 heat pumps a year being installed by 2028. But last year the total was 72,000. This was the lowest number relative to population size in Europe, according to the EHPA. There were only 1.9 heat pumps installed for every 1,000 households last year, compared with 20 for every 1,000 households in France.

An engineer checks the installation of a heat pump at the Octopus Energy training facility in Slough, Berkshire.
An engineer checks the installation of a heat pump at the Octopus Energy training facility in Slough, Berkshire. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The blame for what a House of Lords committee called a “disappointingly low” take-up lies mostly with the government, according to its report earlier this year. It found that public awareness of low-carbon heating systems was “very limited” and that promotion of the scheme had been “inadequate”.

A shortage of installers and “insufficient independent advice” were also hindering take-up, according to the report.

This may be about to change. The government decided to increase the £5,000 grant towards the cost of a heat pump at the end of October to £7,500. This led to a doubling of installations in the first full month since the change. The extra government backing has also been viewed as a positive sign from the market as companies continue to invest in skills and training. The UK market may heat up yet.

Graphic showing sales of heat pumps versus boilers as proportion in different European countries

Lessons from Nordic heat pump heartlands

Norway has by far the highest penetration of heat pumps per capita in the world, at 60% of all households, and its Scandinavian neighbours are not far behind. There are over a million installed heat pump units in Sweden, where more than 40% of households have one.

The popularity of heat pumps has been on the rise since the 1970s, when the global oil crisis triggered a rethink of energy policy in many countries without domestic supplies of oil and gas. But more recent moves to introduce heat pumps in Denmark, which once relied on its North Sea gas for much of its heating, will see more heat pumps installed across the region.

“Denmark has been a little slow but they plan to replace 400,000 gas boilers by 2028-29,” Nowak said. Between 30% and 50% of those homes will be converted to district heating schemes by 2028 – many of which will be able to use large-scale heat pumps – while other homes will be switched to electric heat pumps by 2030.

The Danish government set out the plans last year after gas market prices rocketed in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February.

“It’s a very positively charged change,” Nowak said. “People believe that they are acting for the common good. This is missing in the UK.”

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