The heat-pump nightmare is far from over

A condenser sits on the roof during the installation of a heat pump
A condenser sits on the roof during the installation of a heat pump
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It’s now clear from the evidence that heat pumps are an impractical form of heating for millions of UK homes. This is due not only to high upfront costs but also the lack of insulation in older buildings and the inability of systems driven by heat pumps to respond quickly to weather variations. Yet Sir John Armitt, the head of the National Infrastructure Commission, is this week urging the Government to commit to a total ban on gas boilers by 2035, declaring that heat pumps are the only way forward.

In its Second National Infrastructure Assessment, the Commission lays out a set of recommendations without which, it claims, the Government cannot meet its net zero targets. This includes the disconnection and decommissioning of the UK’s entire gas network – at an estimated cost of some £74 billion – thereby ending the use of gas as a domestic and commercial heating fuel by 2050.

The Commission is adamant that the use of hydrogen as a full or partial substitute for gas, and which could be piped through the existing gas network after some modifications, should be ruled out. In order to persuade homeowners and local authorities to abandon their gas heating and install heat pumps, the Government would also be expected to hand out billions in subsidies.

Given the current level of the national debt, the state of the economy and the ever-increasing demands from the NHS, it is hard to see where all these billions will be found. The Commission blithely asserts that “bold” decisions must be taken, and the cost spread between national and local authority budgets as well as by levies on consumers. It claims that the costs could eventually be recouped through the lowering of energy costs via the increased use of renewables.

But this is itself an expectation that surely deserves closer scrutiny: there were no bids from suppliers for offshore wind in the Government’s most recent energy auction, mainly because the reduction in government subsidies had rendered the projects unprofitable. The prospect of cheap and plentiful renewable electricity remains a distant dream. Upgrading the electricity network to handle the switch away from fossil fuels is also expected to cost tens of billions.

Fortunately, the Government has not rushed to endorse the Commission’s proposals, and has issued a statement to the effect that the gas network will always be part of our energy system and that the role of hydrogen is still being explored. Certainly, the repurposing of the gas grid to accommodate hydrogen looks a lot more realistic than abandoning the grid altogether, and it’s surprising that the Commission has not referred to the progress being made in Germany, blending natural gas and hydrogen with a view to ending its reliance on imported gas.

This approach would draw on the experience of the 1970s transition from manufactured “town gas” to natural gas, which required modifications to the network and boilers but at a much more modest cost than wholesale replacement of national and domestic infrastructure.

Ironically, the Commission cites the UK transition to natural gas as a laudable example of a forward-thinking infrastructure change, comparable to the overhaul required to replace boilers with heat pumps. In fact, it’s a striking contrast. The Commission seems convinced that the bigger and bolder the changes and the more money is spent, the better will be the outcome.

Of course, the same reasoning was deployed for HS2, of which Sir John has also been an enthusiastic proponent. But if ever there was a moment for borrowing and spending upwards of £74 billion, that moment is long past. The Conservative government and Labour front bench now appear to agree that the dismal state of our public finances will constrain expenditure for the foreseeable future.

Yet neither party seems to have adjusted its assumption that net zero can be achieved by 2050. It’s to his credit that Sunak has postponed the ban on gas and oil boilers; it remains to be seen whether Sir Keir Starmer will follow suit by the time of the next election.

But there remains a yawning gap between an imagined net zero future and the practical reality of life in Britain today, of which the proposed abandonment of gas as an energy source is a graphic illustration.

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