26 May 2023
Leading energy consultant Element Energy, an ERM Group company, has published a ground-breaking study detailing the major benefits available to householders, Britain’s energy system, and our climate objectives, through the deployment of networked ground source heat pumps (GSHP), and heat demand shifting. Networked GSHPs involve the installation of in-street pipework, which absorbs heat at a year-round constant 10°C and delivers it to individual heat pumps in people’s homes.
A networked approach to heat pumps would give millions of homes, from terraced houses to tower blocks, access to the most energy-efficient heating. As this pipework would be owned and operated by a third party, like a 21st century gas grid, the upfront costs of the infrastructure would be removed for individuals. The technology is already heating thousands of homes from Cornwall to Orkney but deploying it at scale could deliver multiple benefits to householders and our energy system.
Element Energy’s Low Carbon Heat Study examines the energy system impacts of increasing the proportion of networked GSHPs, the use of heat batteries and heat demand flexibility in 2050. The study also examines the individual benefits available to households. The key findings include:
- Britain’s annual electricity consumption could be reduced by up to 24 TWh a year in 2050, almost as much as the estimated total annual output of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
- Britain’s annual peak electricity demand could be reduced by up to 36 GW, equivalent to 11 times Hinkley C’s output, or a 24% reduction in expected peak demand in 2050.
- Up to £15.1 billion/year could be saved in electricity system costs between now and 2050 by reducing the amount of generating and network capacity required.
- Networked GSHPs can be almost 20% cheaper (£290/year) to install and operate than air source heat pumps (ASHP) on an annual basis.
- Networked GSHPs consume 40% less electricity to provide the same heat as their ASHP equivalents.
However, there remain major barriers to the mass roll-out of this technology and the development of a strong UK-based supply chain. At the publication of the report, Kensa, the UK’s primary manufacturer and installer of GSHPs, has highlighted three key policy measures to unlock the potential of ground source heat for Britain:
- Lower the cost of electricity. Heat pumps are around three times more energy efficient than gas boilers. But the myriad of additional levies on electricity, and none on gas, mean heat pump efficiencies are still not translating into major cost savings for consumers. Reform of these levies and the electricity market is vital for heat decarbonisation.
- Reform heat pump support schemes. Heat pumps will be subsidy free by 2030, but short-term support is important to establish a market and economies of scale. Current support schemes fail to recognise the long-term benefits of GSHPs. While upfront costs can be higher than other technologies, the additional investment provides an underground network that delivers heat for 100 years. Taking a long-term view would support modest increases in support for GSHP now to deliver vastly greater cost savings in the future.
- Heat Zoning: Government plans to establish ‘heat network zones’ across the country should be more ambitious, aiming to identify not only suitable areas for traditional heat networks but the most cost-effective and efficient technologies for all areas of the country. Technology-specific support could then be targeted at the right areas to encourage uptake.
Sam Foster, Partner at Element Energy, commented: “Achieving widespread rollout of heat pumps in homes up and down the country is key to the UK reaching net zero. This exciting study has generated some fascinating insights into the benefits that greater deployment of ground source heat pumps could provide to the UK’s energy system by mitigating much of the need for costly investments in electricity generation and network upgrades.
“We have shown how individual households can benefit from ground source heat pumps and heat flexibility when these are deployed at scale. We're proud to have led this study, which presents a strong case to re-assess the role that ground source heat pumps can play in the future energy system.”
Dr. Matthew Trewhella, CEO of The Kensa Group, commented: “Element Energy’s study demonstrates well the benefits of ground source heat pumps, including lower household bills and energy consumption, reduced strain on the electricity grid, and billions saved in energy infrastructure upgrades and investment. Critically, the study demonstrates that by taking a networked approach and leveraging private-sector finance, it is possible to deliver these benefits without requiring householders to pay more upfront.
“However, as a British manufacturer committed to supporting the government's climate targets and developing a domestic supply chain, the policy environment remains extremely challenging for us. The current one-size-fits-all approach to clean heat will not deliver the optimum mix of technologies. In the same way that different electricity generation technologies, from solar to offshore wind, have been supported by tailored policy, various heating technologies will require their own targeted approach. If the UK is to see the benefits of ground source energy, it is vital the government starts to see this technology as a long-term infrastructure investment – a 21st century replacement for the gas grid – and develops policy accordingly.”
Juliet Philips, Senior Policy Adviser at E3G, commented: "Heat pumps are the unsung hero for reducing Britain's energy use - helping cut bills, reducing our reliance on international fossil fuel markets and tackling the climate crisis. This new report shows that increasing the uptake of ground source heat pumps in the UK could reduce our electricity demand by an amount equivalent to over 2 million homes' consumption. We hope to see more support from the government to help communities benefit from the opportunities associated with scaling up deployment of this clean tech across the UK."