It’s time for rural households to wake up to the government’s heat decarbonisation plans

Rural Property

Most policy commentators agree that it makes little sense to install heat pumps in inefficient buildings. Yet that’s exactly what the government’s new Heat and Buildings Strategy proposes.

The plan is to take a heat pump first approach, phasing out the installation of high carbon fossil fuels in homes and businesses off the gas grid from the mid-2020s. The government is also targeting new build, which is sensible, but existing homes with gas boilers won’t be targeted until much later – 2035. 

The government argues that it’s appropriate to target off-gas grid buildings because they use more polluting fuel – which is true. However, it also makes other more questionable claims to justify its plan. One is that data suggests 80% of these homes can fit a low temperature heat pump system without any modification other than resizing the heat emitters. Another is that the cost of heat pumps will fall be between 25% and 50% by 2025, so these households won’t face significant additional cost.

Neither of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

Few would disagree that you can install a heat pump in virtually any building. The question is whether it’s practical or cost effective to do so. 

The government’s 80% claim derives from an academic study, but it ignores other BEIS data that shows that 65% of oil heated homes are in poorest performing EPC bands E, F or G – homes that are unlikely to be heat pump ready without costly energy efficiency improvements. A recent survey by OFTEC of 229 rural heating businesses supports this latter view. They reported that less than 20% of the homes they serve are currently suited to a heat pump without energy efficiency improvements. 

And those improvements are likely to be costly. Government research found that the average cost of upgrading a home from Band E to C is £12,300; from Bands F and G, it increases to £18,900. This doesn’t include the cost of the heat pump itself, which will add on average another £11,000. These costs are unlikely to be affordable for most households.

The claim that the price of heat pumps will fall is also not compelling. The average reported cost of a heat pump installation rose 37% between 2011 and 2019. With inflation now at over 5% and rising, the idea that prices will fall by 50% in three years seems extraordinarily optimistic. 

It’s true that some energy players, notably Octopus Energy, plan to offer heat pumps at much lower cost. However, they will do this by targeting easy wins – suburban homes in the south east of England. Hard to treat rural homes are not part of their initial plans because the opportunity to save costs is clearly not there. These homes are simply the wrong place to start and it’s difficult to understand why the government’s policy strategists didn’t come to the same, surely obvious, conclusion. Even if prices do magically fall by 50%, a typical air source heat pump will still cost at least twice as much as an oil or LPG boiler in 2026 when the new policies come in. 

What does this mean for off gas grid homes and businesses, many of whom are blissfully unaware of these plans? Imagine a scenario in early 2026 where your oil boiler fails and can’t be fixed. Instead of a simple like-for-like replacement, you’ll likely face a myriad of difficulties. Is the building suitable for a heat pump? Is your pipework the right size? What needs to be changed and how much will it cost? Will you even be able to find an installer you trust to do the work? If you don’t have substantial savings, will a loan or re-mortgage be possible? Even if you can afford the cost, are you prepared for a lengthy delay and significant disruption while you wait for your heating to be restored?

This is not scaremongering. The government has proposed a test of ‘reasonable practicality’ when a boiler is replaced, but they haven’t defined how this will work. Given the ‘heat pump first’ approach, it’s a fair assumption that most homes will be required to fit a heat pump under the new regulations, with all the challenges and cost that this will entail. 

This begs an obvious question: is the government’s plan discriminatory? Any policy that treats a minority of society differently to the majority must be fair. Indeed, the government states in the Heat and Buildings Strategy that a fair transition is critical to success. But as the guinea pigs for the government’s heat pump roll out, rural households potentially face the highest costs, most disruption, and the greatest uncertainty over outcomes. Until 2035, an equivalent gas-heated household can just fit another gas boiler and relax. Few would agree that this is fair. 

Is there another way? While heat pumps are an excellent technology, they are not an ideal solution for many off-grid homes – something the government should now concede. A policy reboot is urgently needed, targeting heat pumps where they can be installed quickly and easily. 

For the off-grid sector, alongside funding for sensible energy efficiency improvements, the adoption of a more technology inclusive approach would make sense, with support for options like renewable liquid fuels such as HVO alongside heat pumps. This would offer much-needed choice, allowing the right heating solution for each home to be selected. It would help protect many households from excessive capital costs and encourage more competition, benefitting consumers. Importantly, it would also help to accelerate the transition to cleaner fuels. Conversion to HVO is straightforward, does not require an appliance change and offers an 88% carbon reduction compared to traditional heating oil. For many homes it would be the perfect option.

You can find out more about HVO on the Future Ready Fuel website. Please consider supporting our campaign. It’s vital we get this option accepted by government to protect rural households and enable a fair transition to low carbon heating for all.

Malcolm Farrow is head of Public Affairs at OFTEC.

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Andrew Scott
2 months ago

Couldn’t agree more. Another point that needs to be addressed is that there are many rural properties that cannot be effectively decarbonised and will remain energy inefficient as they are ‘Listed’. A friend of mine lives in a reasonably large farmhouse, which has cost him a lot of money to renovate, having to replace windows with single georgian glazed sash windows, made by a joiner at great expense to comply with the listing. However, the previous owner allowed the property to deteriorate to an almost deralict condition, before applying to get it listed with the hope of applying for a grant to renovate it. That didn’t materialize, so he sold it. To get it de-listed is complicated and could take many months. So, isn’t it about time that all of this beauracracy was removed for any properties not of significant historical value in the name of allowing owners to de-carbonise their homes?

Mars
0 kWhs
Reply to  Andrew Scott
2 months ago

An excellent point Andrew We live near a Grade 2 listed Victorian hall that hasn’t been inhabited for a decade, which has recently been purchased. The reason it wasn’t inhabited is because the pervious owners couldn’t get planning permission to put central heating plumbing in. The property only has fireplaces. I have no idea what the new owners will do to overcome this, but there are grade listed properties that will need to remain on fuels that require burning.

Kev M
Editor
826 kWhs
2 months ago

A property takes the same amount of delivered energy to heat it whatever the heat source is. If a heat pump and emitters are properly sized then they will deliver that energy with an efficiency that should make its running costs at least comparable to oil. That applies to a Passivhaus as well as a leaky old listed building. The only exception is when it’s really, really cold, which is seldom in the UK. There are a few very large and listed buildings where a heat pump may not be viable but such numbers are small.

You seem to be saying the alternatives are (1) improve the fabric and install a heat pump or (2) leave the fabric as-is and carry on burning oil regardless. I don’t agree.

Decarbonising isn’t going to be cheap; we are all going to have to contribute and some people will undoubtedly need help. But sooner or later we’re going to have to stop burning stuff in our homes to keep warm.

Saz
Saz
708 kWhs
1 month ago

I live off gas grid, in a 9 year old well-insulated social housing new-build yet have ended up with high temp heat pump despite having UFH and large Srelrad K2s. I gather the refrigerant has a lower GWP than most, but installing a higher temp pump in this house is unnecessary perhaps and is possibly less efficient/costs more to run. I like it’s green credentials but noone is honest and upfront about this and it matters if my bills are going to cost more? I seem to have been forced to sacrifice the efficiency of my heating in favour of the alleged savings on hot water bit I’m finding this pump much more expensive than my old one in general and I can’t see any difference in how much hot water I have. This refrigerant is highly flammable but the rules have been conveniently changed to allow it to be more widely used and even called ‘mildly flammable’. I live in a street now where a few pumps have been replaced and it’s pot luck who gets one that costs less to run so there’s inequality right on my doorstep. I can’t afford to be experimented on with this technology. I keep seeing adverts everywhere ‘Save money on your energy bills by getting a heat pump’. This is so disingenuous it makes me want to scream. Where is the small print that says ‘compared to gas/LPG?storage heaters’? The public are being hoodwinked good and proper.We need to be levelled with. We need transparency and honesty, good design and installs/afterservice. I actually want to be positive about heatpumps but my experience over the last few months and years has really got me down. I’ve had to do my own research and insist that it be set up for weather compensation today to try to save money, as that’s another thing, installers ‘setting and going’ in a one size fits all way and being extremely resistant to altering them. Lots of conflicting advice given by different engineers too. Optimisation is not easy but key.

Angela
Angela
Reply to  Saz
1 month ago

I agree heat pumps are an experiment and we in rural areas are not being told the facts and the huge cost of installing heat pumps let alone the fact that they are not efficient and will not work in windy areas. They also don’t tell you that you will need new radiators throughout and the house needs to be insulated to within an inch of its life. Impossible to do in old or historic properties. A friend did look into having a heat pump installed in a very old property and the total cost would have been a minimum of £18,000 and I don’t believe he was told there would be the added cost of replacing radiators. There is an alternative but this government aren’t even considering it. While on the subject of insulating and saving our planet, why isn’t it the law that all new builds have to have solar panels. Talk about inconsistencies.

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