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UK Government Holds its Nerve on Heat Pumps as Clean Heat Policy Confirmed

March 25, 2024

A cornerstone of the UK’s plans to slash the use of gas in home heating has survived a bitter backlash from the gas boiler sector.

Speaking in the House of Lords yesterday, energy efficiency minister Martin Callanan brought an end to months of speculation when he announced that a plan to ramp up heat pump installation targets would go ahead on April 1, despite intense lobbying.

In his comments, Callanan praised a July 2023 investigation by DeSmog, which revealed the UK’s largest gas boiler trade association, the Energy and Utilities Association (EUA), had paid a PR company to “spark outrage” about heat pumps in hundreds of articles and media appearances.

The Clean Heat Market Mechanism (CHMM) aims to roll out 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. Experts see the policy as essential to tackle emissions from the UK’s carbon intensive homes, which account for 15 percent of greenhouse gases nationwide.

The policy mandates that in the first year of the scheme, four percent of heating manufacturers’ sales should be from heat pumps, or they risk a fine. The gas heating sector has dubbed this a “boiler tax” and repeatedly called for it to be scrapped.

In response to an oral question from Earl Russell on Wednesday on whether the policy still stands, Callanan said:

“Of course, there is no such thing as a boiler tax and therefore it’s impossible to scrap it – but if the noble Lord is asking me about the Clean Heat Market Mechanism, then we will be implementing it because it is an essential part of meeting that 600,000 target and also of course our carbon budgets.”

This is the strongest confirmation yet that the UK government is sticking to the policy after months of media speculation over its imminent demise.

A spokesperson from the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero confirmed to DeSmog the target for heat pump installations but did not provide further details, adding only that they would inform industry of their plans in due course.

DeSmog understands that a pilot year with no fines is soon to be confirmed and is likely to be announced early next week.

“It’s highly welcome to hear Lord Callanan confirm that the Clean Heat Market Mechanism will go ahead – despite ferocious lobbying and media speculation,” Juliet Philips, programme lead at energy think tank E3G, told DeSmog.

“While tweaks to the scheme seem likely, this policy will help set the long-term direction for lowering household bills, bolstering energy security and British heat pump manufacturing,” she said. “We now need to see confirmation from the government on the timeline for laying the regulation – putting an end to attempts to assassinate the policy once and for all.”

Baroness Pidding and Lord Callanan discuss DeSmog’s investigation during a debate in the House of Lords.

‘A Disgrace’

Gas boilers currently heat around 85 percent of Britain’s homes, and introducing low-carbon heating from electricity-powered heat pumps is essential to the UK meeting its climate targets.

However, the clean heat plans have been under attack from the UK’s gas boiler sector – and from politicians. In October, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weakened plans to phase out the installation of gas boilers in new homes amid a backlash on green policies that was welcomed by anti-net zero and climate science denial groups.

The EUA has also lobbied to delay the introduction of the CHMM, DeSmog and The Guardian reported last year.

In recent months, some boiler companies preemptively raised their prices by £125 per unit in anticipation of fines. They came in for criticism not least from energy secretary Claire Coutinho, who accused the boiler manufacturers of “price gouging plain and simple”. Since then, however, the government appeared to waver on the policy.

Speaking in the debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday, Baroness Pidding asked Callanan whether he’d read the “excellent investigative journalism” article published by Desmog and The Guardian on the gas lobby-funded campaign.

Callanan confirmed he had read the article, continuing:

“My Lords, I’m supportive of a sensible debate on competing technologies, but planting misleading and false stories about heat pumps to negatively affect public support for the technologies is frankly a disgrace. And the big boiler manufacturers who fund the EUA should be ashamed of themselves.”

DeSmog’s investigation with The Guardian revealed that a campaign run by PR agency WPR on behalf of the Energy and Utilities Association (EUA) had produced hundreds of damning stories on electric heat pumps.

The PR agency generated two thirds of the high-profile negative content published about heat pumps in the 23 months to April 2023, with headlines in The Sun, Telegraph and The Express  dubbing the technology “Soviet-style”, “financially irrational” and “costly and noisy”.

Mike Foster, the EUA’s chief executive and a former Labour MP, featured prominently in national newspapers, on TV and radio in the majority of the content analysed. According to the WPR website, they had been hired by the EUA to deliver an “integrated PR and social media campaign” to “help change the direction of government policy”.

The investigation found the campaign had exploited genuine concerns around the high upfront cost of heat pumps to generate consistently negative headlines, while boosting the profile of hydrogen blending in the energy mix – without raising any concerns or drawbacks associated with the fuel.

The use of hydrogen in domestic heating is highly disputed by experts. A 2024 meta-review of over 50 independent studies concluded that using it for this purpose is inefficient, costly and resource-intensive compared to other low-carbon options such as heat pumps.

In an emailed statement, EUA chief executive Mike Foster denied there had been a negative PR campaign, and referred DeSmog to a letter to Lord Callanan on the EUA’s website, written in February, which notes that the organisation has now hired a new public relations firm.

“There was no such campaign and there was never any payment made by EUA or its members to finance something that frankly did not exist,” Foster told DeSmog. “As an organisation we believe all technologies are needed to decarbonise heat and have said so repeatedly, in the written press, TV, radio and online. My regular blog reinforces this.”

DeSmog’s investigation found that among his multiple articles on heating and hydrogen, Foster acknowledged a role for heat pumps in domestic heating in just one post, in October 2021, and only in homes that already run solely on electricity.

Michael Liebreich, energy analyst and founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said companies were being “incredibly foolish… to waste their money on anti-heat-pump PR”.

“It’s good to see the government holding its nerve on heat pumps, in the face of the most disgraceful predatory delay tactics by the UK gas heating industry,” he told DeSmog.

“Nowhere else in Europe are incumbent boiler manufacturers and gas distribution networks so brazenly spreading misinformation as in the UK – so it’s small surprise to see the UK coming  up last in Europe for heat pump installations per million homes.”

Phoebe Cook

Phoebe is Senior Reporter at DeSmog. She previously trained as a news reporter across local titles in Essex and East London, with her work since appearing in the Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, and The Local and Prospect Magazine.