COVID-19 has played havoc with much of the building industry over the last four months and the damage to the heat pump sector has been considerable.
However, the impact hasn’t come from COVID-19 alone, but from a “perfect storm” of the pandemic, Non-Domestic RHI tariff degressions and the appearance of yawning gaps in government policy with respect to the decarbonisation of heat. Of these, it’s the lack of a long-term heat strategy that is the single most damaging concern.
The automotive industry has been given nearly twenty years’ notice of a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engines (ICEs) in the UK. This might yet be brought forward, but the long-term strategy is well and truly “flagged”. As a result, investment in new drive trains has largely swung from combustion to electric vehicles. The outcome is that manufacturers are reporting, in increasing numbers, that they will be 100% electric well before the actual enforcement date.
Government, providing a genuine long-term strategy, has delivered an outcome that would almost certainly have been resisted as unrealistic, had it been imposed by regulation. This is all the more impressive because it is happening against a backdrop of very limited zero charging infrastructure at the time of the policy announcement.
Contrast this with the policy landscape for heat (and cooling) in the built environment. The current government approach appears to be centred on a fixation that there is a choice to be made between electrification and hydrogen, and that this choice can be deferred until 2025. In my view, this is a false premise on both fronts.
If we are to achieve Net Zero 2050, we will need all the technologies currently available (including electrification with heat pumps), all the technologies under development (including hydrogen) and several that we have not yet considered. So there is no choice to be made, and we simply cannot afford to wait until 2025 to “floor” the (electric) accelerator pedal for heat.
The choice to be made is what to do with each technology for the best use of equally valuable resources.
Heat pump deployment at scale needs long-term and steady policy for the built environment which supports electrification. All the seasoned sector watchers, the Committee for Climate Change, National Grid, the Energy Systems Catapult, many generators and DNOs, and just this week the IPPR thinktank believe that heat pump numbers have to reach the millions, if we are to decarbonise our homes and workplaces.