Why heat pumps should replace gas boilers in commercial buildings

Jon Lawson

Heat pumps use the same technology as employed in fridges and freezers.

They exchange heat between the inside and outside of buildings, providing heating in winter, and cooling in summer. They are particularly useful because one heat pump can provide heating and cooling, thereby offering a simpler way to improve the building environment.

Crucially, they emit no carbon emissions at the point of use, significantly improving air quality.

Heat pumps are more cost-effective

The three main costs associated with running a heating and cooling system in a building are:

  • Initial purchase and installation costs
  • Running costs – especially the cost of electricity, gas and other fuels
  • Maintenance

Fuel is by far the most significant part of the whole-life cost of installing and running a heating system.

WSP’s research shows that, on a whole-life basis and even with no government incentives to support low-carbon heat uptake, heat pumps are around 25% cheaper to install and operate than conventional building heating and cooling systems.

If incentives for renewable heat or other government subsidies are accounted for, such as in the UK and Germany, then the lifetime cost savings of heat pumps are further enhanced.

For example, in the UK, the Renewable Heat Incentive is guaranteed for 20 years and puts the lifetime cost of heat pumps significantly below those of gas boilers with electric chillers.

Andrew Marsh-Patrick, WSP Associate Director, said: “The business case is compelling. Costs are coming down fast and, using real-life data, we have shown that over a lifetime, heat pumps are now 25% cheaper than the conventional gas boilers and chillers used to heat/cool commercial buildings.”

“Beyond the cost benefits, heat pumps play a major role in improving city air quality as gas combustion accounts for up to 40% of city nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in cities. Heat pumps are also highly energy efficient and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 70% compared to gas boilers (using average European grid emission factors). This will become even more important as climate change increases cooling demand.”

“Using more efficient, low carbon ways to heat and cool buildings becomes essential if cities are to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction targets. Heat pumps are therefore an attractive proposition and are the default options in many countries and are gaining wider uptake.”

Heat pumps will play a crucial role in helping cities to become all-electric (in terms of heating and transport) by 2030, an achievable target set out in a previous white paper (read here).

The report makes four recommendations to speed up the transition.

1. Heat pumps should be a central feature of city air quality and decarbonisation strategies.

2. Building regulations and city Planning Guidance, should direct the use of heat pumps for new commercial buildings, and where existing gas systems are to be replaced. This overcomes the challenge of heat pumps being more expensive to install, despite the big savings realised during operation and also the inevitable inertia of installing new technologies over more established programmes.

3. A programme is needed to give designers and contractors the skills to specify, install and maintain heat pumps effectively and to give customers the confidence in the standard of workmanship.

4. Cities need to have confidence that their electricity networks have the capacity for the long-term move to all-electric buildings and transport. They should engage with smart energy networks now to prepare for this future.

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