Forget the fact that heat pump installations in the average home could cost several thousand pounds more than a conventional gas boiler and that fully insulating those homes will add even greater cost to the homeowner.
It’s not really the cost issue that could be the only potential bump in the road on the way to the target set by the UK Government, because a more pressing problem to solve will be the shortage of trained ‘green’ heating engineers that will be the key to delivery of the plan.
Gas boiler production
I’m sure I’m not alone within the industry in adding my support to any drive that leads to a more effective use of environmentally responsible sources of energy for home heating. And following the news that ministers are currently discussing a cut off date of 2035 for all domestic gas boiler production, with an earlier 2025 ban on their installation in new homes, it is encouraging to think that technologies with which we in the industry have been working for a decade or more, will finally become the norm, rather than the green exception.
However supportive I and colleagues in the sector might be, we should not shy away from challenging the Government on the delivery of the targets it has announced, because currently we haven’t heard enough in the Government’s Heating and Buildings Strategy about the market’s skills shortage.
Heat source technologies
At Ameon we’ve been working with green technologies for over a decade, on large scale public sector
The truth is that there are simply not enough heating engineers currently who are experienced in the installation of alternative heat source technologies, such as ground or air source heat pumps, and given that tens of thousands of new or re-skilled engineers will be required if the Government’s plan to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028 is to be achieved, then the drive needs to be supported by the associated training provisions to help it meet its goal.
At Ameon we’ve been working with green technologies for over a decade, on large scale public sector and residential developments but I feel that aside from building services infrastructure companies like ourselves and others in our sector, there isn’t currently a large enough skills base and therefore the infrastructure needs to be put in place to be able to train enough people to carry out the installation program.
Low carbon technologies
This could be more of a factor in the achievement of 2035 target aspirations, than even the potential public reluctance to embrace the technology for cost reasons. Whilst specialists in our sector have teams of qualified heating and ventilation engineers who are hugely experienced in low carbon technologies, it has to be acknowledged that their experience and skill set has taken considerable time and investment to develop; therefore I hope the Government hasn’t underestimated the vital importance of training.
This could be more of a factor in the achievement of 2035 target aspirations
You can’t simply ask domestic heating engineers, who are used to fitting conventional gas boilers, to switch to installing ground or air source heat pumps overnight. There are significant differences in the science and the technology, together with the requirement by law for engineers to be F-gas registered, proving that they are qualified in the safe handling of fluorinated refrigerant gases (F-gas), which are ozone depleting substances crucial to the heat pump delivery process.
Conventional gas boilers
Then, there’s the need for engineers to understand how to design low temperature water systems and avoid such things as Legionella bacteria creeping into the system. There is much more to learn for someone used to installing boilers that heat water to a temperature to pasteurize it, because the public health element is a key factor too.
So there needs to be significant retraining and, of course, the time to create the infrastructure to deliver the training. The other related issues, such as where training would be delivered and who funds it can be more easily addressed. After all, the Chancellor has protected UK businesses at the drop of a hat in the midst of a pandemic, and the country has, in short time, created a hugely efficient mass-vaccination program; proving that anything is possible.
Reducing carbon emissions
Steve Baker, has warned of public anger if all implications of the Government’s plans are not explained
Currently discussions in Whitehall include such ideas as homeowners being required to install ‘green’ heating before they can sell their property, or levying a surcharge on gas boilers to subsidize production of heat pumps: although no firm decision has yet been taken.
It is reported that former Conservative minister, Steve Baker, has warned of public anger if all implications of the Government’s plans are not explained fully to homeowners, which is why I and others will add our voices to the many questions that really need to be answered. That doesn’t mean we in industry are not fully supportive of the Government’s aspirations. The public too appears to be broadly behind this move to reduce carbon emissions, particularly as gas boilers account for a percentage of CO2 produced annually; therefore it is an important area to focus upon if ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 are to be achieved.
Newly trained engineers
Roughly 85% of UK homes currently rely on gas for heating, which is around 25 million homes, so the scale of the change required is immense. Even if the UK had the qualified engineers to start from day one, which it doesn’t, the targets are ambitious to say the least.
It is my view that investment in training has to be at the heart of the Government’s planning. That could be delivered on the job, in the classroom, or, as has become the norm during lockdown, via online platforms such as Teams, Zoom or Skype. So if the will is there and the resources are in place to fund training, the method is the easier part of the process. What’s less certain is whether the army of re-skilled and newly trained engineers can be deployed quickly enough to achieve the target set. The clock is ticking...