Tuesday 14 September 2021 2:00 pm

Money won't solve the problem of the gas boiler

Darren Snaith is an expert in renewable heat at the RSK Group

For all the talk about building back better, green jobs and investment, the UK is lagging behind its European counterparts in the number of low-carbon heat pumps installed in homes. Later this month, the government is due to publish its much delayed heat and building strategy. But it is expected to dilute plans to force people to shell out thousands of pounds to switch out their gas boiler.

Heating has been responsible for responsible for more than a third of our carbon emissions, making it the single biggest contributor to our carbon footprint.  And with around 25 million households heating their homes by gas boilers accounting for a significant proportion of this, the government knows that getting people to ditch their gas boiler will be crucial in helping meet the net zero target.

But despite numerous attempts to trail this “gas boilers bad, heat pumps good” message, significant chunk of the population – two in five according to one survey – are unaware of the government’s intentions. Even so, 80 per cent are willing, in principle, to change the way their home is heated. A similar percentage would consider buying a low carbon alternative.

The main stumbling block has been price. While a replacement gas boiler can cost around £1,000, an air source heat pump full system installation starts at around £7,000 (depending on aspects such as the size of the home and the complexity of the installation). Heat pump systems operate at a lower temperature than boilers, so it means older homes might need bigger radiators and better insulation, both of which can add to the basic installation cost – potentially rising to as much as £14,000.  According to some estimates, only 18 per cent of UK homes would be suitable for existing heat pump technology without at least some insulation being fitted.

So it’s not surprising that people want more money to cover the cost of changing out their gas boiler than the government is willing to hand out. More than one in three of those say they would need a grant of more than 50 per cent of the cost.

That means grants of up to £4,000 – due to be offered through the government’s Clean Heat grant scheme – are unlikely to be enough to persuade the majority of those to want to install a heat pump to do so.

Money cannot be the only driver. It would simply cost too much. People need to be made aware of the need to change and of the benefits of heat pumps. This has already got off to an inauspicious start with Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, caught up saying they were “worse” than gas boilers. The government also has a selling job to do addressing unfounded concerns such as underperformance in terms of generating heat.

Britain’s heating appliances manufacturing sector is dominated by oil and gas boiler manufacturers. Money set aside for climate concerns should be used to incentivise the industry to change as much as it foists the burden on individuals. This will allow costs to fall and make it more accessible.

Skills will also be crucial. Boris Johnson wants 600,000 heat pumps replacing gas boilers every year by 2028. That’s a huge leap from the 30,000 that are currently installed each year, but at the moment there are just 1,200 installers qualified to fit heat pumps, meaning around eight times this number would be needed to meet the government’s target.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy has already been put off for too long because of squabbling in government over how to foot the bill in funding the domestic transition away from fossil fuels. The focus must be on ensuring a swift retrofitting of domestic heat in order to lower the costs for the future. Other countries have already raced ahead – the gap will only grow.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.