One of the weaknesses of the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy is that the grants available for heat pumps are most likely to be taken up by better-off households, and that fuel poor households are at risk of missing out. Suddenly, fuel poverty is in the news, and the internet is full of self-proclaimed experts who claim that heat pumps are no good for the fuel poor.
Let us never forget that our reliance on gas for heating homes is one of the main reasons why fuel poverty is on the increase. Even the most efficient gas boilers are only 95% efficient, whereas heat pumps are at least 300% efficient. Gas boilers are frequently over-sized, and incorrectly designed to run at high temperatures, which means they operate at much less than 95% efficiency. Gas is part of the problem.
Fuel poverty is a complex social issue. It is caused by poor efficiency of buildings and appliances; lack of understanding of how to use appliances efficiently; low income; all compounded by the fact that the fuel poor are most likely to be on the worst tariffs and use the worst payment methods. People with cold and damp related medical conditions are at greater risk of fuel poverty.
There is no magic bullet to solve fuel poverty.
Effective fuel poverty interventions include some or all of the following:
- Improving the thermal efficiency of a home;
- More efficient heating appliances;
- Income maximisation;
- Supporting fuel poor households to find the cheapest payment methods and tariffs, which is difficult in a time of price volatility.
Successive governments have failed to implement strategies that achieve a holistic approach to solving fuel poverty. Heat pumps are right for some homes and not right for others. What fuel poor households need is a whole-house plan to make their homes more efficient, starting with improving the building fabric.
Proper design is key to the successful installation of a heat pump in any home. The UK is short on heating engineers who understand how to design and install heat pumps. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Read a report I wrote about a project in Birmingham to help vulnerable fuel poor households.
Here is a video of the successful use of heat pumps to help fuel poor households.
Featured image by Amy Purdie for Saltley Community Association.