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While government struggles with retrofit, businesses are moving on to heat pumps

The residential heat pump market remains one of unproven potential in the UK.

Early adopters and those with the disposable income have jumped on board, but the costs which have been bandied around in the media, plus the cost-of-living crisis, have served to make mainstream customers feel somewhat apprehensive about the idea of replacing their gas boilers with something more sustainable.

The thing is, we won’t have many options if we are looking to actually hit net zero by 2025.

There won’t be a national green source of hydrogen able to fulfil all the needs, so heat pumps remain the only currently viable alternative.

The problem is, they do require upfront investment, a huge installer network, and concurrent improvements to the building fabric to ensure the benefits are not lost.

There is a massive heat pump opportunity on the commercial side

James Parker James Parker Managing editor, Architects’ Datafile

The leaky man of Europe

This is now almost axiomatic in the construction industry, the issue is when the government will turn its thoughts away from perhaps more Election-sensitive issues to the most pressing one at hand, namely finding the right national scheme to improve the UK’s failed housing stock.

We are one of the leakiest in Europe in terms of existing homes, and it’s a national scandal.

New build is of course a massive issue, but it’s dwarfed by the retrofit problem.

Again, the industry knows this, but when will government grasp the nettle and invest?

Last year, Greenpeace reported that the UK had the joint worst levels of heat pump sales in western Europe, but arguably one of the biggest needs in terms of procuring them at scale for homeowners and renters to be futureproofed.

Against the Government’s now seemingly arbitrary 600,000 installations a year target, the sad reality is only 55,000 were fitted in 2021, whereas 1.5 million gas boilers went into buildings. The 5K grant is simply not working, and some reckon the 600K target is way short of what’s needed for net zero.

It cannot be left to the whims of the market and consumer sentiment, it needs unfashionably top-down national programming of a scale we haven’t seen for decades – although Covid proved it is possible, if not always effective.

A massive opportunity commercially

While we wait for the residential market to heat up however, there is a massive opportunity on the commercial side, such as offices and retail outlets (heating can take over half of a commercial property’s energy demand, although arguably retail shouldn’t require a great deal of space heating).

Maybe this is where the big strides could be made over the short term, as the world continues to pursue ‘normal service’ post-Covid.

Government has pumped out a range of regulations recently for the non-domestic market, from Part L to the Future Buildings Standard and MEES but needs to do more on stimulating the delivery of solutions among specifiers.

It needs a top-down national programming of a scale we haven’t seen for decades

James Parker James Parker Managing editor, Architects’ Datafile

Avoiding stranded assets

Business owners have a major opportunity to decarbonise their heating systems over the next few years, driven by regulation but also pressure from their customers to be more sustainable, and their own ESG goals.

As well as the new Part L of the Building Regs, which also affects non-domestic premises, the Government has implemented the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) following consultation with the HVAC market.

Since April this year, MEES makes it illegal to let commercial premises that don’t have an EPC ‘E’ rating or above.

In a lot of cases, this will mean moving from old boilers to something much more sustainable such as heat pumps, and the consequent investment.

Easier to achieve

However, as well as adhering to the law, business owners can look to safeguard their premises against the whims of gas prices, and cut their carbon – if they take a long-term view.

The problem is of course that the electricity market is also prone to volatility, and the grid itself is going to be the focus of concerns in coming years as EVs become more common alongside non-fossil fuels heating.

Whatever commercial clients can do to retrofit their buildings with fabric improvements will reduce that energy demand, and will arguably be a lot easier than many domestic settings to achieve.

Raising awareness of MEES

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) warned a few months ago that one of the main levers for getting heat pumps into commercial buildings, namely MEES, had very limited awareness among a sample of building owners surveyed by law firm Irwin Mitchell.

In fact, 31 per cent of the 500 respondents said that they weren’t aware of their legal requirements in terms of the minimum E rating under MEES (which is to be raised progressively post-2025).

This is absolutely shocking if you ask me, and the government has to take blame. Introducing new standards is nothing without actively educating the people ultimately making the decisions, and who will be punished if they fail to adhere.

James Parker, managing editor, Architects’ Datafile