Government reluctance to reduce energy usage likely to harm heat pump rollout

Dr Marie Claire Brisbois, Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, spoke to Building Products about the government’s reluctance to reduce energy usage and its impact on the heat pump industry. Today, many industry professionals have criticised the plans to subsidise low-carbon heat pumps in place of gas boilers for UK homeowners in England and Wales. Millions of households will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from next April to help them make the switch. According to reports, the subsidies will fund only 90,000 heat pumps by 2024.

Supporting heat pump uptake appears to be an easy solution for our net zero targets. With heat pumps, we are switching from polluting gas boilers to green electricity powered heating (and cooling) sources.

However, converting to heat pumps is just one piece of the puzzle. In many cases, home energy retrofits will be required before it is even possible to fit a heat pump. Retrofits make homes warmer and make it so that much less heat is needed to feel comfortable.

Supporting retrofits means that the government will be helping the public to use less energy overall. However, this means that energy suppliers will be selling much less energy. This is problematic for suppliers because their business models demand ever-increasing profits. More energy efficient homes means less energy is sold and profits decrease. Unless suppliers can come up with creative means to shift their business models, they have every reason to oppose – or at least not support – incentives for energy efficiency measures.

In general, this government is very supportive of measures that increase growth in new areas (i.e. in heat pumps). However, they are much more hesitant to introduce measures that will significantly decrease overall profitability for energy companies.

While energy retrofits will provide tens of thousands of jobs in the trades sector, the net result of energy efficiency will be an overall decrease in energy use – and that is bad news for energy companies, and likely for overall national economic growth figures.

Unfortunately, global experts agree that we have no hope of meeting even a 2oC target without huge decreases in energy use. That unavoidably requires support for home energy retrofits, regardless of how it appears on economic balance sheets.