Why heat pumps are key to meeting the decarbonisation challenge


13 April 2023

Established air conditioning specialists have a key role to play in the heat pump roll-out. As the company celebrates its 20th anniversary, Darrel Birkett, MD of Cool Designs, reflects on the changes underway and how the industry can support clients and consultants in the journey to net zero.

Heat pumps have received some unflattering coverage recently in the national press. However, I believe the technology will play a vital role in helping the UK meet its net zero targets, and that traditional air conditioning suppliers will be central to the roll-out.

Criticism has focussed on the domestic sector, where gas boilers have offered a reasonably efficient and, until now, cheap way of heating homes. The steep rise in energy costs has changed this calculation, while the start of volume production and greater competition between manufacturers is lowering the cost of buying and installing heat pumps.

In the light of this, it seems likely that resistance to making the switch from gas to heat pumps for homes will begin to melt away as the economics become more favourable and pressure to decarbonise mounts.

In the commercial sector, where we are focussed, the case for heat pumps is compelling. From our own experience, the savings to be made on larger commercial- scale heat pumps for buildings have been attractive for some time.

With the recent hikes in energy costs, pay-back times have dramatically shortened. The discussion with clients now is not so much about whether to use heat pumps, but which systems are most efficient and reliable, and the best control strategy.

From a thermodynamic perspective, the fundamental efficiency of heat pumps is impossible to ignore. Their ability to harvest low grade heat energy from the environment and industry and upgrade
it into a useful form to heat and cool buildings gives them a big advantage over alternatives.

While the most efficient forms of traditional gas heating approach Coefficients of Performance (COPs) of less than one, modern heat pumps can achieve COPs many times this. As a result of the efficiency of the vapour compression cycle, heat pumps can generate several times more energy than they consume, far outstripping rival approaches.

This, coupled with the fact they are proven technology, sets them apart among competing low carbon solutions, and means they will have a huge role to play in meeting the nation’s carbon reduction targets.

As well as helping to reduce carbon emissions for individual buildings, heat pumps have an equally important part to play in reducing emissions through their use in distributed heat networks.

Heat networks provide heating, hot water and / or cooling from a central source to homes, public sector buildings, shops, offices, sport facilities, hospitals and universities. According to the recent figures, there are currently around 14,000 heat networks in the UK, providing heating, hot water and / or cooling to approximately 480,000 consumers.

As they aggregate heating and cooling across an estate of buildings, such networks are uniquely able to unlock otherwise inaccessible large-scale
renewable and recovered heat sources.

Climate Change
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimates that around 18% of UK heating
provision will need to come from such heat networks by 2050 if the country is to meet
its carbon targets cost-effectively.
With their exceptional energy efficiency and ability to harness low grade heat sources, heat pumps have a huge part to play in the roll-out of this new generation of heat networks across the country.

The infrastructure to supply and support the heat pump roll-out is now rapidly being put in place. On the commercial side, traditional air conditioning specialists like ourselves are gearing up to meet demand, as a natural extension of our core expertise and knowledge.
In our own case, air source heat pumps (air to water) have been part of the product mix since we were established 20 years ago. In the early days, heat pumps were chosen by clients who either had no gas supply to their building, or wanted to prioritise energy efficiency.

Now, through the combination of higher energy costs and government support in the form of schemes such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) and Condition Improvement Fund (CIF), there is a significant added incentive for clients to opt for heat pumps.

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Building regulations
The recent changes to the building regulations have also radically tilted the balance in favour of heat pumps. Under the new requirements, building designers are legally required to meet the new statutory targets for renewable energy, which in practice means using electricity for heating and hot water generation.

As a result, air source heat pumps have become practically the default choice to enable buildings to meet the targets.

The result of these changes has been dramatic growth in the number and value of heat pump projects we support. From a relatively low base a decade ago, commercial heat pump projects now account for around 10% of turnover, equating to some £2m. And we anticipate this to increase substantially in the coming months and years.

Traditional AC specialists
A key challenge for traditional air conditioning specialists to support the heat pump roll-out is ensuring we have the experienced staff to support the increase in the number of projects.

From our experience, staff already have the core knowledge on the principles of thermodynamics and DX vapour compression; it is just a matter of providing training and building expertise in the specifics of heat pump applications and system control.

We have found that existing staff have embraced the challenge. Internal staff have been given training to expand their understanding of the work of in-house design teams, and are constantly developing new ideas and approaches. Projects teams have learnt rapidly due to delivering ground- breaking heat pump projects in sectors such as schools and public buildings.
We are now looking to set up a dedicated customer training centre for air-to-water systems, as we feel training in this area is needed as the pace of change accelerates.

Decarbonisation journey
Supporting consultants on the decarbonisation journey has to be a key focus. The pivot to new technologies and approaches has been so rapid and profound, many have been scrambling to get up to speed with the new reality they are operating in. The learning curve for most consultants has been almost vertical.

For example; if we had approached a consultant five years ago with a heat pump-based design for a project, more than likely they would have simply shaken their head. Today, minds are open and people fully engaged from the first conversation. It has been a radical shift.

In particular, support via the PSDS cheme – which has made funds available quickly – has contributed to this change in mind-set. PSDS applications come in waves, which are ongoing, and we are supporting many consultancy practices across the UK in preparing applications under the scheme.
Projects include schools and public buildings, such as swimming pools, libraries, leisure centres and fire stations. On a larger scale, we are also involved in stage one planning for decarbonisation
schemes for hospitals and universities. Here, the feasibility of heat networks is under active consideration.

Net Zero
The UK has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, the reality is that for many projects, particularly in the public sector, the target completion dates are much sooner, around 2030.

Working back, it is clear that big changes in power and infrastructure will be required, and quickly. It requires courageous design decisions and capital commitment to deliver these ambitious projects within this timescale. We are supporting the relevant consulting engineers with all options through the evaluation phases.

For the reasons outlined, we believe heat pumps will play a central role in this national – and indeed global – effort to decarbonise the economy. For our part, we are focussed on gearing up to support the roll-out, and have the people, products and expertise in place to help make it a reality.