Unlocking the potential of ground source


14 December 2020
NIBE says that help is needed to tackle the upfront costs of installation

Phil Hurley, Managing Director of NIBE Energy Systems, says the infrastructure required for ground source heat pumps should be considered a long-term priority.

Whilst the fight against climate change lends itself to the image of recyclable coffee cups and bags for life, some of the more challenging areas of climate policy call for much deeper incentives.

The reality is that we must reduce our carbon emissions across the entire economy, and policy is required to help instigate this large-scale change.

This is particularly true when we look at heat decarbonisation, with many households currently unaware of or unable to access low carbon heating solutions despite their established carbon saving potential. Fossil fuel heating continues to dominate the market, but this can’t continue for much longer; 19 million heat pumps need to be installed by 2050 in order for us to reach the UK Government’s Net Zero target and decisions to aid their deployment need to be taken right away. 

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has had some success in encouraging the uptake of low carbon heating systems but there are two key issues that it has failed to address: the scheme is limited to able to pay customers and has done very little to incentivise ground source heat pumps (GSHP) in comparison to other eligible technologies.

To put this into perspective, air source heat pumps make up 60% of RHI applications, compared to just 14% for GSHP. The Clean Heat Grant scheme promises to remove the upfront cost barrier by offering £4,000 upfront grants for heat pumps from 2022; however, this will do little to overcome the cost of the groundworks required before a GSHP can even be installed. Carefully designed policy is needed to address this expense and to ensure the technology is attractive to both consumers and developers at the same time. 

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Aside from the obvious carbon saving potential, ground source heat pumps also require very little space since they work by extracting heat from underground, pumping water through a series of pipes buried in the land surrounding the property. With space often at a premium on developer sites, this space-saving advantage should theoretically make the technology attractive to developers. But the reality is that developers are faced with the cost of installation but do not benefit from longer-term savings.

It is crucial that policy is designed to tackle this issue head on, focusing on the new build stage of homes when the groundworks and the installation of heat pumps can take place more easily and cost effectively. Should the cost of the groundworks be divided between adjacent new build homes, for example, the cost of installing a GSHP would be comparable to a fossil fuel heating system. Logistically speaking, it also makes more sense for the work to take place in tandem with other building work, where machinery can move between multiple properties within the same location. 

NIBE Energy Systems believes that the infrastructure required for ground source heat pumps should be considered a long-term priority. With emissions from UK homes and buildings still far greater than they need to be, encouraging uptake of the technology is essential – and this won’t be done without tackling the upfront cost. NIBE’s recent policy paper, Energy Infrastructure of the Future: Ground Source heat Pumps, calls for a new framework to help fund the groundworks, similar to the standing charge already place on heat networks or gas bills.

Secure in the knowledge that the cost of the infrastructure can be covered through a small and regular standing charge, developers and consumers may be more open to opting for a ground source heat pump. As time ticks on and we edge closer to the UK’s net zero emissions target, subtle incentives simply won’t do the trick; the Government must remove the barriers preventing the low carbon transition and boldly lead the way.