BLOG: 600,000 Heat Pumps annually by 2028: A government commitment that calls us to draw breath – before charting a course of action to unlock the future we want to see.

“The opportunity for heat pumps to catalyse the net zero transition is undeniably evident. Technology is only part of the answer – to confront the real problems that lie ahead we must look both to the horizon and inward. By broadening our perspective and asking more pivotal questions, a journey of discovery might pave the way for more enduring solutions.” – Oliver Riley, Generation7.

In the face of the climate and energy challenge and the pursuit of a sustainable future, heat pumps have emerged as a game-changing solution. Should a primer be needed, they provide heat with lower CO2 emissions than gas boilers, a happy situation that gets ever better as our electricity grids shed their fossil-fired skins and embrace renewables. Heat pumps are quiet, clean and don’t emit harmful exhaust gases. The government's commitment to growing the heat pump market to 600,000 installations annually by 2028 presents an extraordinary opportunity to catalyse the transition to a net-zero society. In this article we will explore why heat pumps should be embraced as a cornerstone of our decarbonisation strategy and delve into three key areas where a shift in thinking can unlock their full potential and catalyse the deeper and more impactful changes our world urgently needs: 1.) Vision  2.) Perspective & 3.) Partnership.

Heat Pumps – Warmth With a Triple Bottom Line.

Heat pumps have the potential to bring about significant human, social, and environmental benefits. On a human level, they offer affordable heating and cooling solutions, with the potential to reduce energy costs and provide comfort for individuals and households. This affordability alleviates the burden on marginalised communities, who often face disproportionate energy expenses. By improving access to efficient and cost-effective heating and cooling, heat pumps contribute to enhancing the quality of life and well-being of individuals. The Air Quality improvement over combustion-based heating is meaningful too: the NHS says on average, 4 Londoners, including 1 child, are hospitalised everyday due to asthma caused by air pollution.

Heat pumps and heat networks pave the way for democratised and decentralised energy systems. Localised, community-led initiatives can be established, fostering a sense of ownership and empowering people to take control of their energy future. Heat pumps enable social justice by providing equitable access to sustainable energy solutions, bridging gaps in access and affordability.

Environmentally benign and renewable resources can be leveraged by heat pumps, such as geothermal heat, ambient air or water sources and waste heat recovery, reducing reliance on finite fossil fuel resources. This reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact helps mitigate climate change. Heat pumps serve as the perfect conduit for transforming waste into warmth, seamlessly integrating renewable energy sources, and decentralising energy systems to uplift community well-being and promote environmental health on a large scale.

The Big Shift – The Role of Heat Pumps in Defining the Future.

The scientific consensus leaves no room for doubt: relying only on the goals of "sustainability" and "climate neutrality" we will fall short in our collective pursuit of a just and equitable future. A transformative shift is needed. So, as an industry, let’s explore, how can we strategically channel our efforts to enhance our knowledge and skills, revolutionise our approach, and achieve the substantial impact that this opportunity truly deserves:

1.)  Vision, Or Re-imagining Our Futures.

Change begins with the courage to see a different way of doing things. Think, for example, of the obstacles to retrofitting buildings with heat pumps. A decade ago the issues, from operating temperature compatibility to supply chain maturity to consumer acceptance loomed large; the inertia of the old paradigms, the oil-tanker, if you will, in the room. Today our industry, freshly having beneficially converted to heat pumps acute hospitals, inner-city tower blocks, heritage buildings and more, is building the knowledge to guide others and show that another way is possible. Our role as an industry is to share this learning pro-actively, building development into our approaches, rigorously pursue best (and better) practice, and inspire other people and organisations to unlock their full potential.

2.)  Perspective. Beyond Silos, Towards Systems Thinking.

Imagine systems thinking as a lens that allows us to view the world holistically. Rather than focusing on individual parts, we recognise the interconnectedness of everything, akin to assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. This perspective enables us to perceive the invisible threads that tie everything together, to better understand complex systems and design holistic solutions. Heat pumps and heat networks emerge as natural allies, seamlessly integrating into the fabric of systems thinking. By linking together an ecosystem of many consumers, who need heat or cooling at slightly different times, we can reduce the size of equipment needed to meet the peaks. Ergo, reduced materials, lower embodied carbon and less strain on another interdependent system, the electricity grid. Heat pumps can even provide support to the grid, absorbing excess power at night and releasing it the next day. They can even be designed to store energy inter-seasonally. Together, they form a formidable force driving us towards a more interconnected, efficient, and resilient energy landscape.

3.)  Partnerships: The Power of Collective Action.

Achieving the scale of heat pump rollout necessary to meet our goals requires collaboration that transcends traditional boundaries. It is essential to foster authentic and meaningful partnerships between customers and providers, designers and contractors, and all stakeholders involved in our built environment and beyond. Nature too can have a seat at the table, ensuring that our built environment harmonises with, and enriches, the natural world over inter-generational timescales. By acknowledging our shared objectives and engaging in the design process together– co-creating – we can generate more robust and inclusive solutions that build buy-in and establish foundational conditions for successful outcomes.

Real World Examples: Paving the Path to a Regenerative Future.

There are great examples where a holistic approach is elevating heat pumps to new heights. Here’s two for starters:

1.) Islington, a bustling neighbourhood in London, is at the forefront of the global transition towards a low-carbon future with the groundbreaking GreenSCIES community energy network. This innovative project sets itself apart as an ingenious energy network that will lead the way in the UK. By harnessing low-temperature waste heat from nearby data centres and office buildings, GreenSCIES efficiently distributes locally sourced power, leading to are markable 80% reduction in emissions. Not only will this initiative ensure affordable energy costs for its 33,000 residents and 80 businesses, but it will also revolutionise the district's energy landscape, providing an inspiring blueprint for other cities to follow suit in their pursuit of sustainability.

2.) In the picturesque village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire, a groundbreaking heat network project is transforming the community's energy landscape for 300+ homes by addressing fuel poverty and environmental challenges head-on. The Swaffham Prior heat network, known as "Digging for Britain," takes a bold step towards a sustainable future by replacing oil heating systems with a cutting-edge community-led network. By tapping into renewable energy sources and utilising modern technologies, this visionary project brings affordable, low-carbon heating solutions to residents and local businesses, ensuring their comfort while reducing emissions. With a strong focus on collaboration and community engagement, Digging for Britain sets a shining example for other communities, illustrating the power of innovative and environmentally friendly energy solutions to shape a greener tomorrow.

The Call To Action For Us All.

Courage and vision are much needed at this moment, where the wickedness of the world’s problems seem to overwhelm incremental approaches to change. Here, heat pumps shine as a beacon of hope, promising to revolutionise the energy landscape and usher in a new era of both social and climate energy justice. The commitment to install 600,000 heat pumps annually by 2028 is more than a target; it is a call to action, an invitation to participate in shaping a sustainable future.

As we have re-imagined our buildings, then, could we re-imagine whole ways of living? Ways perhaps more in tune with nature’s rhythms, ways freer of extractive and damaging industrialised systems, ways with deeper and more meaningful connections to place and community – ways that even in a small part, ask us what it really means to live?  

Oliver Riley FCIBSE is the founder of Generation 7, a building services engineering consultancy helping people make choices that will still be applauded seven generations from now.

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