Market finally hotting up for renewables

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19 March 2021
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Guy Ransom, commercial director of leading heat pump installer Finn Geotherm, looks at the changing landscape for heat pumps as the Government now finally puts the systems top of the list for heating in a bid to cut UK carbon emissions.

Back in November, the Prime Minister outlined his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, aiming to create and support up to 250,000 British jobs, bolstering the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. Part of this plan is to focus on homes and public buildings: Making homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. After all this time, it is fantastic to see heat pumps finally and firmly on the agenda as part of the country’s plan to cut carbon emissions and energy use.

When we started Finn Geotherm 15 years ago, we were installing systems of around 10kW, at a time when the level of awareness and understanding of the systems was very low. It’s always been a frustration of mine how slow the uptake of heat pumps has been in the UK, especially when compared to countries such as Finland, which is home to Lampoassa – the manufacturer of our heat pumps.

Heat Pumps installed for decades

There, they have been using heat pumps to heat homes, and indeed whole towns, for decades. We also struggled to explain that the technology isn’t new – considering the first large scale heat pump was actually installed in the UK in 1945. It’s not been an easy journey, but the tide has begun to turn. Earlier this year, Finn Geotherm completed its largest project to date – a six-phase 1.1mW district heating system in Felixstowe.

Domestic heat pump installations have continued to grow steadily but it’s the commercial side which has really taken off in recent years. The Prime Minister’s plan to heat public buildings with heat pumps is an idea we’ve been trying to push for a long time and, thanks to some forward-thinking organisations, we have completed several installations in buildings such as schools, village halls, care homes and commercial glass houses. The brilliant way that heat pumps work means they are ideally suited for these buildings which require constant temperature all year round. The low level, steady state heating generated by a heat pump is also perfect for environments where scalding hot radiators and water from the taps can create a hazard – for example junior schools. It’s a great solution, but from experience we know that raising the funds to complete such installations isn’t always easy for some public sector buildings. While the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) does pay back, it doesn’t help with the upfront cost which still remains a barrier to some organisations – and indeed the same can often be said for homeowners too.

Retrofit

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According to the Committee on Climate Change, around 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from homes, mainly from gas boilers. The Committee on Climate Change’s report on UK Housing: Fit for the Future recommends that the UK’s 29 million existing homes must be made low-carbon, low-energy and resilient to a changing climate. The CCC advocates low-carbon sources of heating such as heat pumps and heat networks.

The CCC also encourages the uptake of energy efficiency measures such as loft and wall insulation are increased. However, we’d argue that the source of heating should be considered first. By installing a more energy efficient system such as a heat pump, you are immediately reducing the amount of energy required to produce the heat. By replacing electric or gas heating with a heat pump, energy consumption can be cut by around 75%, meaning that emissions are also reduced at the same rate. Insulation and cladding is, of course, a measure that can help heat loss but it can only save up to around 50% in the best possible cases. In some properties additional insulation is impractical – for example, in old or listed buildings where the appearance cannot be altered or it would have a detrimental effect. In addition, schemes to provide insulation do not deliver any additional benefit to the property owner, whereas the RHI does – and will do so for either seven or 20 years.

If the UK is to scale up our commitment to cutting carbon emissions, we can’t just look at individual properties - district heating has also got to be a big part of this. However, it’s not just making a change in terms of taking out fossil fuel boilers but also a mindset change in the way we are prepared to buy heat for our homes. It is interesting to see district heating becoming more widely acknowledged and used as a means of heating more than one property using a ground source system. In the past three years, we’ve installed three large district heating systems for the housing association Flagship. We read with interest in The Times in January too about the village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire which is coordinating and funding its own district heating scheme to enable residents to step away from oil fired boilers and opt for a heat pump. We’ve been buying electricity, gas and water “over the fence” for years – it’s excellent to see people beginning to accept the idea of doing it with heat. The environmental benefits are, of course, in addition to the many advantages that these systems bring, such as easier servicing and maintenance for landlords too.

New as standard

In January, the government announced the Future Homes Standard and that all new build homes must not be connected to the gas grid from 2025. Instead, these homes should utilise low-carbon options and be ultra energy efficient. Over 90% of projects we undertake at Finn Geotherm are retrofit schemes. In the year 2021, I’m still stunned by the number of new housing estates being built with electric storage heaters. At a time when fuel poverty is such a significant issue, we should not be installing expensive and inefficient systems in any type of home – affordable housing or main stock. It should be the norm to install heat pumps and other renewable heating technology. The 2025 cut off is good news, but why wait until then? We need more forward-thinking housebuilders to start putting heat pumps in now. Between now and 2026, around one million more homes will be built – all of which will then need to be retrofitted at a later date. Installing the bore holes and heat distribution at initial build is much less costly than retrofitting it and of course, doesn’t result in disruption to existing residents. There is still a vast job to be done on the retrofit market too – which will still account for 85 - 90% of dwellings by the time we reach 2025 – but this is a big step in the right direction for new builds.

Upscaling

These changes over the past 12 – 18 months have finally brought heat pumps to the fore as the best possible option to help tackle the climate emergency and offer a better way of heating our homes, offices, shops, schools, hospitals and so many more buildings. But to correctly specify and install a heat pump takes skill. With demand set to increase, now is the time for us to be recruiting and training new staff to ensure that we have all the engineers we need ready to tackle these projects. Staff recruitment and training remain costly, however – we train all our engineers for at least a year before counting them as fully qualified on our systems – so it is imperative that the Government helps create an environment of certainty for this market so that we can have the confidence to make the significant further investment required in our business and to ensure maximum take up of this brilliant technology.

Finn Geotherm