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Report backs heat pump replacement of commercial gas boilers

Consultancy group WSP says the UK is neglecting the long-term cost reduction and air quality potential of heat pump use in city planning

Replacing gas boilers with heat pumps in commercial buildings could have significant longer-term economic and environmental benefits for UK cities, argues professional services consultancy WSP.

New findings from the group estimate that in switching to the use of heat pumps in commercial buildings, heating costs could be curbed by 25 per cent. However, these potential benefits would require overcoming broader British reticence to adopting the technology in municipal strategies, as well as new approaches to construction planning.

Andrew Marsh-Patrick, who authored the report, said that heat pumps were presently neglected in city planning approaches in the UK, despite international examples of their use. 

“A number of leading organisations have used air and ground source heat pumps successfully in new build properties and for retrofits,” he said.

 These examples of international heat pump use include a commercial and residential development project in Seattle that won an award from the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 2015 for energy efficiency.

WSP notes that heat pump technology, which can provide both heating and cooling functions in the same system, is more expensive to initially buy. However, the findings note that heat pumps were found to have lowest whole-life cost beyond the start-up investment required.

The report’s conclusions were based around energy modelling of 600 buildings in Europe, Asia and North America that included offices, commercial properties, warehouses and airports.

WSP said data from its research created a compelling case to switch to heat pumps, which are estimated to be a cheaper heating solution than gas boilers in the long-term.

 “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 per cent cheaper to install and operate than conventional building heating and cooling systems,” said the report.

The report also played up potential benefits for city-wide initiatives to improve air quality by cutting nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions resulting from combustion.

Heat pumps are also highly energy efficient and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 70 per cent compared to gas boilers (using average European grid emission factors),” said Mr Marsh-Patrick.

“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.”

Report recommendations

In order to improve up take of heat pumps to help create cities with fully electric heating and transport systems by 2030, WSP recommends making the technology a core component of future air quality and decarbonisation plans. 

A new approach to ensuring building regulations and city planning guidance that directs use of heat pumps for new commercial buildings and identifying where gas heating can be replaced is also backed in the report.

“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,” said WSP.

The report also calls for a new programme that can provide designers and contractors with the required skills to install and maintain heat pump technology, while also ensuring that cities have sufficient energy capacity to meet demand for all-electric heating.

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