With blistering heat waves in Europe and one of the wettest Julys on record in Scotland this year, mitigating climate change is at the forefront of most governments' minds. Scotland is no different, having set ambitious targets to reach net zero by 2045 with emissions generated by inefficient homes one of the target areas of focus.
As part of the drive to net zero, the Scottish Government is developing regulations in respect of a New Build Heat Standard "NBHS" which will prohibit the use of direct emissions heating system such as gas boilers in new buildings from 1 April 2024. Instead, new buildings will need to be heated using "zero direct emissions heating systems" such as heat pumps.
But questions have recently been asked about whether heat pumps are actually suited to Scotland's climate. Will a heat pump actually work to reduce a home's carbon footprint in the chilly Scottish winter?
What are heat pumps?
There are several different types of heat pumps, the most common being air source and ground source heat pumps. At the most basic level, heat pumps remove heat from the surrounding air or ground and feed this into a connected property; this process requires less energy than traditional heating sources as the pump is not generating the heated air.
Are they suitable for the Scottish Climate?
We expect to see, on a more regular basis, Scottish winters where temperatures are significantly below freezing - and thus an increasing demand for heat during those periods. Concerns have been expressed by some that in those circumstances heat pumps are not capable of generating enough heat to maintain a comfortable temperature and that a heat pump's running costs will become prohibitive when temperatures drop.
Heat pumps are not yet widely used in Scotland, but comfort in their credentials as a viable alternative to direct emission systems can be found in the success of heat pumps in Europe. Driven by a lack of options for gas sources, heat pumps are widely used in Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland where harsh winters are a regular occurrence (indeed people in these countries are installing heat pumps at a faster pace than anywhere else in Europe). Arguably then they should be just as capable in Scotland's milder winter climate.
Encouragingly, recent research from Oxford University and the Regulatory Assistance Project Thinktank found that even at temperatures approaching -30C, heat pumps outperform oil and gas heating systems. At temperatures below zero, they were found to be between 2 and 3 times more efficient than oil and gas systems.
Will heat pumps actually reduce a household's carbon footprint?
Heat pumps are very energy efficient; they can produce as much as two to four times more heat energy than the electricity needed to run them. Whilst they are not completely carbon neutral (being reliant on electricity which may not necessarily be generated by a purely renewable source like wind or solar) their carbon footprint is less than traditional heating sources like mains gas.
Looking ahead, heat pumps are likely to be incorporated in all new build residential developments in Scotland going forward. Developers and housebuilders will need to give consideration to the practical design requirements for heat pumps, such as sufficient space to locate units outside properties, and the associated costs incorporated into any business plan.
As developers and housebuilders will undeniably be one of the driving forces in helping Scotland to meet the 2045 net zero target, they should be allowed flexibility to meet NBHS through use of various appropriate technologies (it should be remembered that district and communal heating systems are other potential options). Success in Europe (including the colder Scandinavian countries) and recent research findings should give significant confidence that even in our cold winters, heat pumps can be used as a useful weapon in Scotland's fight against climate change.
If you have any queries in relation to the matters discussed in this article, please do not hesitate to get in contact with your usual Brodies contact or one of the contacts listed below who will be happy to assist.