'Long way to go': Britain bottom of Europe's heat pump league table

Stuart Stone
clock • 4 min read
'Long way to go': Britain bottom of Europe's heat pump league table

Almost three quarters of homes in England and Wales are still exclusively warmed by gas central heating, a drop of just four per cent in 10 years

The UK remains way off to track to meet its heat pump deployment goals, according to a new analysis of census data that confirms the vast majority of UK homes remain reliant on gas boilers. 

The study from innovation charity Nesta, which was released late last week, highlights how the 74 per cent of homes continue to use gas boilers with the number of households heated by gas central heating falling by just four per cent between 2011 and 2021. The results suggest that over the past decade only 111,000 dwellings have switched from gas boilers to cleaner alternatives. 

Experts have warned that for the UK to meet its net zero goals the country will need to replace roughly 25 million oil and gas boilers with low-carbon heating by 2050 and to help deliver on the goal the government has set a target of delivering 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. But industry insiders have repeatedly warned current heat pump deployment rates remain well short of this goal.

Andrew Sissons, deputy director of sustainable future at Nesta, claimed the UK is "lagging behind" its neighbours and sits at the foot of the European heat pump league table.

"To catch up and turn the map green, the government should focus on making electricity cheaper, on building a skilled workforce for green heating and on providing more financial support to homeowners with the costs of switching, particularly those on lower incomes," he said.

"The vast majority of homes in England and Wales rely on fossil fuels for their heating. That's bad for the climate and now bad for energy bills too."

Nesta's analysis did reveal, however, that in some areas of England and Wales less than half of households are heated by mains gas.

The charity found that there are 18 local authorities - mainly concentrated in central London and in rural areas such as East Anglia, Devon, Cornwall, and West Wales - where less than half of households are heated by mains gas. These areas tend to more reliant on either innovative new district heating systems, heat pumps, or off grid oil-based systems that are primary candidates for switching to heat pumps.

In London, for example, only 27 per cent of households in the City of London were heated by mains gas, while in Tower Hamlets 48 per cent rely on gas-based heating.

"The census data shows that while there are pockets of innovation in green home heating - especially in some rural areas - there is still a long way to go," Sissons added.

The analysis also found that nine per cent of households used solely electric heating, an increase on the eight per cent share seen in 2011.

Nesta warned that the government's failure to reform the energy market to move levies on energy bills from electricity to gas and decouple wholesale electricity prices from wholesale gas prices meant households using electric heat faced higher fuel costs, despite their lower carbon emissions.

"The census suggests almost one-in-10 homes are using direct electric heating, which is typically the most expensive way to heat a home and should raise significant concerns about fuel poverty," Sissons said.

He added that heat pumps offer a route for households to curb their long term bills.

"Green heating is poised for a take off in 2023, as concerns about the climate and energy bills grow, and as crucial options such as heat pumps and communal heat networks move into the mass market," he said. "It is primarily rural areas - such as Cornwall, East Anglia, West Wales and the Scottish Highlands and Islands - that are leading the way on heat pumps.

"Nesta analysis has shown that a well-installed heat pump is now cheaper to run than a gas boiler, and there is scope for much bigger cost savings as the UK increases its supply of cheap, renewable electricity."

This news comes after recent findings from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)-funded 'Electrification of Heat' Demonstration Project revealed that rolling out of heat pumps across Great Britain to meet government targets will require cross-sector innovation to overcome adoption challenges, reduce upfront costs, and minimise disruption during installation.

The project, which aimed to install up to 750 heat pumps in partnership with Warmworks, E.ON, and OVO Energy, found that main barrier to adoption was the disruption of having the heat pump installed - reported by 47 per cent of participants who decided not to proceed with a heat pump installation.

In November, BEIS unveiled plans to invest more than £15m in 24 projects designed to make low-carbon heating solutions such as heat pumps cheaper and easier for households to install as part of its £60m Heat Pump Ready programme. The funding is designed to support the government's wider Boiler Upgrade Scheme grant programme, which provides households with up to £5,000 off the cost of a new heat pump. 

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