Major heat pump trial for UK homes more than ten times oversubscribed

A heat pump installation trial led by the Energy Systems Catapult garnered more than 8,800 applications for a maximum of 750 places, and has proven common misconceptions about the perceived impracticality of heat pumps wrong.

Major heat pump trial for UK homes more than ten times oversubscribed

Pictured: A home fitted with an air-source heat pump. Image: OVO Energy

The Energy Systems Catapult has this week revealed the results of the trial, which was conducted earlier this year in southeast England, northeast England and southeast Scotland. This project was funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), as part of its efforts to deliver the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028.

Published in late 2021 in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, the Strategy is intended to ensure that no fossil-fuel home heating systems are installed from 2035. Ministers have said that heat pumps will be a common alternative to gas boilers in the coming years.

The new trial project was designed to fund a maximum of 750 heat pump installations. 742 were completed. It revealed78 that there is a significant – and growing – demand for heat pumps from homes, with homeowners keen to look at potential ways to cut their energy bills and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their homes.

Nonetheless, many of those who applied believed that their home would not be suited to a heat pump because of its age, layout and/or energy efficiency.

The project proved that, in many cases, these concerns could be overcome. The Catapult’s conclusion is that “there is no property type or architectural era that is unsuitable for a heat pump”. Only 8% of the applicants were told that their property lacked the outdoor space for a heat pump system, and only 2% lacked the indoor space for a thermal store.

On energy efficiency, it is true that the benefits of any heating system will be maximized in a home with quality building fabric. But only 15% of those who installed a heat pump under the trial required energy efficiency upgrades. The most common intervention was loft insulation.

Far more significant barriers, the project found, were the upfront costs of heat pump systems and the disruption of the installation. The latter challenge was cited by almost half (47%) of those who applied for the project, then decided not to proceed with installing a heat pump.

Regarding the cost of heat pumps, this project saw households supported with the upfront cost and provided with technical support by project partners OVO Energy, E.ON and Warmworks. Other homes are able to apply for grant funding under the boiler upgrade scheme, which applies in England and Wales. Similarly, the Scottish and Northern Irish devolved administrations operate their own schemes.

But cost is likely to remain a challenge for many homes in the coming years. The UK Government’s commitment to heat pump affordability is price parity with fossil fuel alternatives by 2030.

Cutting costs and curbing confusion

Summarising the Catapult’s recommendations for policymakers and businesses resulting from the findings of the trial, the organisation’s chief executive Guy Newey said innovation is needed “to make switching to a heat pump as smooth a journey as possible for consumers; to drive down the costs of installation, and to provide a much better consumer-heating experience”.

The Catapult is recommending that policymakers and the private sector work together to enhance consumer engagement and experience in installation, and to ensure measures are in place for consumer protection thereafter.

The Government, it has stated, could produce a “digestible summary” of the facts about heat pumps, including counterpoints to common assumptions. Ministers also have a role to play in ensuring that installer certification processes are fit-for-purpose and that there is appropriate training for heat pump designers and installers, to avoid skills bottlenecks. Moreover, disruption from installation could be reduced through the introduction of standardisation for heating system design tools.

Businesses, meanwhile, are encouraged to ensure that processes are in place to walk potential customers through the heat pump design and installation journey from the outset, and that trained customer support staff are made available. Businesses also have a role, the Catapult states, in summarising facts and busting myths in consumer communications.

Newey said the Catapult also believes there would be a benefit in businesses “bundling net zero products like heat pumps into energy tariffs” to make offerings simpler for consumers. He also emphasised that customers will only want a technology that is as good, if not better than, the fossil fuel alternative.

He summarised: “We are already seeing incredible innovations from some of Britain’s most exciting companies – both from inside the trial and outside. Innovations in new technologies and methods of heat pump manufacture, new installation techniques and digital controls, and new business models. Together these innovations – within a reformed policy environment that incentivises low carbon choices – could help transform the sector, delivering thousands of new jobs.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie