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Heat Pumps: Towards Sustainable Heating

March 31, 2021

iClima Team


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When we think about cutting global emissions in terms of energy, we often focus on the sources of production.  However, efficient use of energy can also significantly bring down emissions.  Currently, the building sector uses a third of all energy generated, of which a further third is used for heating and cooling.  Switching to high efficiency heat pumps could cut this use by 30-40%. This could save between 4.16 to 9.29 gigatons of CO2e over the next thirty years according to Project Drawdown. Led by the American environmentalist Paul Hawken, Project Drawdown is a comprehensive research study that analysed and quantified the most substantive solutions to climate change, and efficient heat pumps are a part of the solutions to make buildings more sustainable.

High efficiency heat pumps are electrical devices that transfer heat through use of liquids, using the ground, air or water as either the source or sink of transferred heat. As an alternative to burning oil or gas, heat pumps use electricity to absorb heat from the air and transfer it into radiators and underfloor heating.  It is a similar technology that has been used in refrigerators for so many years.

Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) are the most common type used today, accounting for 90% of heat pumps sold in the UK, and can reduce energy consumption by 50% compared to furnace and baseboard heating. These systems take air from outdoors and pass it through a compressor that extracts heat from the air. This heat is then sent by a heat exchanger[1] to an air-based system that will heat the indoor space. To achieve 2.5 kilowatts of heating or cooling power, they use an average of less than one kilowatt of electricity. In comparison, conventional heating systems (gas boilers, electric fire, etc) use more than one kilowatt of power to generate only one kilowatt of heat power.  When heat pumps use electricity from renewable sources, they can drastically improve a building’s carbon footprint.

Heat pump technology continues to advance.  One notable innovation is thermodynamic panels, which works similarly to the ASHP. Its installation is easier than a heat pump, and involves less maintenance.  Retrofitting a house to add an air source heat pump can take as little as two days. Installing an air source heat pump is easier than installing a ground source heat pump, because you don’t need to dig, and it typically does not require any planning permissions. Their useful life is around 20 years. ASHPs can be powered by solar or wind instead of electricity from the grid, making homes even more sustainable if not using gas boilers for heating.

[1] Heat exchanger is a system used to transfer heat between two or more fluids. It is used in both cooling and heating processes.

Heat Pumps in the UK

Project Drawdown estimates the adoption of efficient heat pumps to reach 20-40% by 2050.  Prices depend on the building’s size, its insulation properties, and the type of heat pump chosen, but can range from between £8,000 to £45,000.   However, we expect significant growth as prices continue to drop in coming years.  Government schemes can also help.

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has set an annual target of 600,000 heat pump installations for the country until 2028.  That is a 20-times increase from the current rate, as less than 1% of the homes in the UK currently use the technology.  Convincing millions of homeowners to decommission existing oil and gas boilers and adopt a new technology will require incentives. Heat pumps currently cost three times as much as a gas boiler. Moreover, they only work well in homes that are well insulated.  The low hanging fruit is new built homes and last month the UK government banned use of gas from a network in new homes starting in 2025.

Notable Companies

Trane Technologies was named by Fortune Magazine as a global climate innovator in its World’s Most Admired Companies list.  The company is a leader in the healthy and efficient indoor environments, bringing efficient and sustainable climate solutions to buildings, homes and transportation. Based in Ireland, the company has a variety of different solutions, marketed under different brands. In terms of heat pumps, eight Trane models are offered at various price and efficiency levels to match different heating, cooling and performance requirements. Trane makes their heat pumps in capacities from 1.5 tons/18,000 BTU to 5 tons/60,000 BTU.

Nibe Industrier is a Swedish company that develops and sells various energy efficient solutions for indoor climate comfort. Nibe produces a variety of products, including ground source and air source heat pumps. The company claims that their ground source heat pump can lower a home’s energy costs by up to 80 % compared to direct electricity. Their ground source system provides a convenient supply of heat and hot water, and can also provide cooling during hot days. The Nibe air source heat pump can reduce heating costs by up to 50% compared to direct electricity. This system gives homeowners a secure supply of heat and hot water.

With growing needs for lower carbon solutions within the buildings sector, the market for efficient heat pumps is poised to witness significant growth in the coming years.   The global heat pump market reached US$59 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow by 8.5% p.a. until 2025[1], largely driven by the residential buildings sector. ASHP is expected to dominate the market as it is a suitable solution for both space heating and cooling applications.  The market to supply these pumps is competitive, with both global and regional players.  More research and development will continue to evolve as well as better service options as players aim to distinguish themselves. We will be watching closely to see which companies are best placed to benefit from this key sustainable trend.


[1] Grandview Research

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