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A flexible future for heat-pumps

03 December 2020

Randolph Brazier, ENA's Director of Innovation & Electricity Systems, recently gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee surrounding heat-pumps and where they slot into the UK's future heat-mix. Check out Randolph's thoughts on how heat-pumps will play an intelligent role in our future smart grid.


As an organisation and an industry, we are technology agnostic over precisely which solutions are used in households to decarbonise heat. We believe that every technology has its benefits and, considering the diversity of the UK’s housing stock, each of these benefits will have a role to play – ultimately it will be for customers to choose what technologies they have in their houses. However, it is crucial that the network is equipped to deal with this seismic change – whether in shifting to hydrogen, or in enabling the uplift in electricity demand we will see from heat-pumps and electric vehicles.

600,000 heat-pumps per year was a stated ambition in the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan, a number which shocked many as, whilst heat-pumps are not necessarily unpopular, it is more that they are unknown, not to mention that this is a 20-fold increase on current levels. Ever since the late 1960s/70s, gas boilers became the de facto solution for heating as - thanks to abundant and cheap North Sea gas - they were the obvious solution at that time.

However, not all countries had such rich supplies of natural gas. They electrified their heating earlier and, as a result, heat-pumps are already a mature industry. They are ubiquitous in homes across Europe, Australia, and many other markets where they can also have the added benefit of providing cooling in the summer.

The nature of the UK’s housing stock means that heat-pumps will not be suitable for every property. However, a quarter of households in the UK – seven million in total – are either off gas grid or are EPC-C or above, making them potentially suitable candidates for heat-pumps. This provides a huge foundation of properties to begin the switching programme that the Prime Minister has set out.

Even with this foundation, it will be challenging to fulfil this ambition within current frameworks. Historically Government support schemes for interventions in the home have not been especially successful at delivering the volumes needed, whether in energy efficiency or in decarbonising heating. Whilst networks can work with suppliers and installers to drive and deliver the market uptake of heat-pumps, hydrogen, and other net zero heating solutions, there is also a need for investment in networks to provide the capacity required for electrifying heat and transportation. The system has not been historically designed for this scale of heat-pumps, and they represent a significant new demand on the networks.

However, while more cables and transformers (i.e. traditional reinforcement) will be required, it is not the only investment solution available to networks. The UK is already a world-leader in smart, flexible power, including local flexibility markets that can offset the need for reinforcement, something which heat-pumps can play a role in. Heat-pumps can operate flexibly with the right building type, and even more so when combined with thermal or electrical storage. We are calling on the Government to ensure that there is the right incentivisation for flexibility and storage with heat-pumps (including ensuring modern building standards) to minimise the retrofit costs for customers and reduce the need to reinforce the network.

Local flexibility markets in particular provide a new way for heat-pump owners to make money. Commercial-scale heat-pumps are already starting to participate in the 2GW of local flexibility markets (2020 figures - the largest in the world) that British networks are facilitating. As these markets mature, they represent a new revenue stream for a heat-pump owner.

In summary, heat-pumps will be a welcome addition to our heating and energy mix. Much like other innovations and market shifts, they will have to play an intelligent role. But we are confident that with the right frameworks in place, and with regulation aligned with policy, industry will be able to deliver the solutions we need to empower customers and achieve net zero.

About us

Energy Networks Association (ENA) is the industry body representing the energy networks. Our members include every major electricity network operator in the UK. The electricity networks are at the heart of the energy transition. They directly employ more than 26,000 people in the UK, including 1,500 apprentices. They are spending and investing £33bn in our electricity grids over the coming years, to ensure safe, reliable and secure energy supplies for the millions of homes and businesses reliant on power every day.

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