Heat-pump rollout at risk of delay, amid fears of crackdown on crucial gas

Air source heat pump installers - Andrew Aitchison/Getty Images
Air source heat pump installers - Andrew Aitchison/Getty Images

The heat-pump rollout could be delayed, experts have warned, amid fears crucial gases face a crackdown.

Gases that are central to both heat pumps and air conditioning are set to be phased out more quickly than previously planned, in a move that could block net zero goals to rapidly replace gas boilers with electric heating.

HFCs, a type of f-gas or fluorinated gas, contribute significantly to global warming if allowed to escape into the atmosphere, prompting plans to phase them out.

Cutting the quota

Original EU plans meant cutting the quota allowed for industry down to just under a third of 2015 levels by 2024, and to just over 20 per cent by 2030.

But the EU has announced new proposals to cut it down to just five per cent of 2015 levels by 2030, a stricter schedule that the UK may follow and that could stunt the rollout of heat pumps, a central part of net zero plans.

An expected spike in demand for air conditioning after this summer’s record-breaking heatwave in the UK and Europe is also set to increase pressure on supplies.

‘Wouldn’t be enough f-gases’

Martyn Cooper, commercial manager at the UK’s Federation of Environmental Trade Associations, which represents heating and cooling companies, including the heat-pump industry, said: “The bottom line is there wouldn’t be enough f-gases to service existing equipment in the market, be they heat pumps or not.

“It would potentially impact on the rollout of heat pumps because there wouldn’t be enough f-gases to go in them now.

“Potentially you have one environmental regulation, f-gas regulation, impinging on the move to net zero.

“The UK government’s target is 600,000 heat pumps installed by 2030.

“There are other factors that affect the heat-pump market, one of which is the need for more trained engineers to install.

“But that aside, you’d still potentially not have enough heat pumps available to meet the government’s net zero targets.”

Earlier this year, the European Heat Pump Federation warned that the proposed stricter limits would “necessarily slow down the speed at which heat-pump equipment will be deployed”.

HFCs can be replaced with natural refrigerants such as propane that have much lower global warming potential, but these tend to be flammable, which has historically limited their use.

UK ‘likely’ to follow Europe

Bean Beanland, director for growth and external affairs at the Heat Pump Federation, said the UK would likely follow European trends.

“Clearly we don’t want to get into a situation where we started limiting the UK market for heat pumps by demanding special treatment.

“So it’s highly likely that the UK regulations will relatively closely follow global trends because it’s just not economic for us to demand anything else,” he said.

The UK has previously said it would incorporate the existing EU law on f-gases into UK law. A consultation on the UK’s law is set to launch at the end of the year.

In June, Defra minister Jo Churchill told the European Scrutiny Committee of MPs that ministers were concerned that the changes could force suppliers to scale back production of heat pumps, although the government “may choose to implement similar measures following the review of GB legislation in order to support the UK’s target of achieving net zero”.

The new regulations “could hamper UK’s net zero objectives”, the committee warned.

“The danger, as far as we’re concerned in the UK, is that the siren voices of the environmentalists will be whispering in its ear, and saying, ‘oh, come on. You could go a bit further in this, couldn’t you?’.” Mr Cooper added.

“It’s conceivable that the ultimate EU proposal might be stricter than it is now, but I can’t really see how that would function in the market.”

Campaigners urge UK to be strict

Earlier this year, the Climate Change Committee urged the UK to follow the EU’s stricter timetable.

Sophie Geoghegan, a climate campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said: “The UK is expected to carry out a revision to its own UK f-gas regulation shortly.

“We would hope that it is equally, if not more, ambitious than the revision in the EU. A ban on the use of high GWP [global-warming potential] HFCs in heat pumps will allow for a single transition to the cleanest heating option available.”

A Government spokesman said: “There are currently no issues with the availability of fluorinated gases needed for heat pumps. Replacing a gas or oil boiler with a heat pump will help protect households from rising fossil-fuel prices that are being driven up by pressures on global markets.

“We are incentivising people to get a heat pump by offering grants to slash the price of installation by £5,000 or more and by cutting VAT to 0 per cent and are working with industry to further bring down the cost of heat pumps by up to half by 2025.”