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A new kind of carrot is needed

The government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution lays out the objective of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2030. A proportion of that can be achieved by legislating against gas boiler installation in new homes and requiring use of heat pumps, for example.

But, according to government figures*, the first quarter of 2021 saw just under 50,000 new homes completed in the UK. That is the highest figure in over 20 years. Even if new houses continue to go up at that rate, we’re looking at 200,000 new homes and heat pump installations per year.

That would just about take us a third of the way to the target. Government must persuade householders (and private landlords) to swap out their existing gas boiler systems if we are going to get anywhere close to the target.

There are really only two main approaches for creating such a large-scale change quickly: carrot or stick. Raising the price of gas to reflect its carbon footprint is a big stick. The energy price cap will rise in Winter 2021 and resulting price rises will particularly affect gas. Ofgem* is warning that the average household could see an increase of £150 in household energy bills.

Unfortunately, the ‘carrot’ side of the equation seems currently lacking. Two major schemes for helping householders ‘green’ their homes have gone awry, with no clear indication of what might replace them. The Treasury also seems reluctant to offer grants that make a real dent in the current price difference between a new gas boiler (around £2,000) and a heat pump installation (about £9,000 for an air source heat pump).

I think that one of the issues is in the technology on offer. The reason the price difference seems steep is that homeowners are swapping one heating and hot water system for another, for quite a lot more cash. People can be persuaded to spend the extra money, but only where they see an added benefit.

Maybe it’s time to admit that heat pump technology doesn’t just heat – it can cool too. With an air-to-air heat pump, for example, you’re not buying a new kind of boiler; it’s a system that will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.

No more sleepless summer nights in unbearably hot houses. And it harnesses all that green electricity while being energy efficient. You can even add filters to ensure the air being delivered is free from pollutants and allergens. The bells and whistles are definitely attractive.

We know why this link between heat pumps and cooling has been a big no-no for government. Cooling homes in summer would inevitably mean higher energy use. But it seems unfair to me that exclusive apartments in London and other UK cities are being built with air conditioning pre-installed (and not usually via heat pumps). No one is introducing legislation to prevent that. Is cooling only to be permitted for the wealthy?

Some householders are already taking things into their own hands and installing air conditioning systems in their homes. This is probably being accelerated by the home office boom as we all miss the air conditioned comfort of the office in summer months. As the UK climate becomes hotter, some form of domestic cooling really does start to sound very attractive when temperatures rise over 30oC.

If people are naturally moving in the direction of air conditioning in their homes, then I say we go with that trend. Government should support air-to-air heat pump system installations, not just air to water as it has done in the past. This might be the incentive that gets people interested in heat pump technology.

I realise it’s a controversial suggestion, but if we are using gas price rises to change the market, then surely, we can accept that householders will be sensible about using their cooling systems efficiently. If not, then why bother using energy pricing as a mechanism at all? Radical problems like reducing our reliance on fossil fuels require radical solutions. Harnessing a naturally-rising demand for cooling in homes could drive a new interest and persuade homeowners to make the switch.

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