Heat Pumps Are Not The Answer

What parallels can we draw from the automotive industry?

I would love to have a Tesla.

Or an ID3.

Or a BMW iX M60.

Or pretty much any electric vehicle at this point.

And I’m not alone.

A burning need to be an ‘innovator’ or ‘early adopter’, a moral sense of purpose, a desire to be ‘green’ or rising fuel costs — whatever their motivation, hundreds of thousands of people across the UK have moved towards EVs.

Today there are an estimated 477,000 electric cars on the road in the UK and more than 790,000 plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

As of 2022, 137,498 new electric cars have been sold in the UK.

This means new electric vehicles have a 14% share of the UK’s new car market (updated September 2022).

EV via Unsplash

Red Flags

And yet, the petrol heads and Clarkson enthusiasts out there have been laughing at us all along.

Whether they are a climate change denier, staunch lover of the sound and smell of internal combustion engines, or just passionate about debunking myths about how Elon Musk’s plans to save the planet — people have been raising concerns about the ‘sustainability’ of EVs.

EV Batteries are made of some extremely finite materials, such as lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt.

A projected sixfold surge in demand for lithium-ion batteries over the next decade means up to 384 additional graphite, lithium, nickel and cobalt mines may be needed by 2035 to supply all those new EVs, industry forecaster Benchmark Minerals said in a report.

Even a big increase in battery recycling, as planned by companies including Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle, would only cut the number of new mines to 336.

The challenge of expanding supplies is complicated by the need to limit damage to the environment and ensure sustainable extraction methods.

Tesla, the top global EV brand, has said it plans to scale up its factories to make 2 million vehicles annually by next year and ten times that level by the end of the decade.

If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply — and that’s before you include all the other manufacturers.

Behaviour Change

One of the perks of living & working in London, is accessibility.

I am afforded access to many different forms of public transport (as well as private rented transport such as e-bikes).

Riding a Lime e-bike through Brixton

Not every village, town or city is as well connected as London — and not everybody has the privilege to move around so freely themselves.

But, where possible, we should work to utilise shared and public transport to improve transportation and space efficiency.

Here are 200 people in 177 cars VS without cars VS on buses VS on bikes.

If the means are available, we should be opting for shared means of travel as opposed to individual/ private owned vehicles.

If less people wanted/ had privately owned cars, we would reduce demand for the finite materials that make the batteries and other components of new technologies.

Embodied Carbon

And that brings me back to heat pumps.

A domestic heat pump (as much as I love them), has significantly higher embodied carbon (upfront) emissions compared to a standard boiler.

There are a lot more components that go into a heat pump, that require a complex supply chain compared to that of a boiler.

So, just like EVs, the operational carbon emissions from using heat pumps will be extremely low, or even zero (dependent upon your energy suppliers mix and reliance upon renewable sources) — but the trade off will be the higher embodied carbon.

The total embodied carbon emissions for a typical air source heat pump installed in a UK home are 1563 kilograms (kg) CO2e.

One homeowner calculated that their heat pump avoids 1313 kg CO2e a year. It means that after less than 1.5 years, a heat pump starts saving carbon compared to a gas boiler, even if the gas boiler is replaced before the end of its life.

If domestic heat pumps result in carbon savings, why would they not be the answer?

The UK Government have a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.

This will help us get towards Net-Zero.

But if we are to take a truly sustainable approach to reaching net-zero, we should be very conscious and mindful of our decisions, the short and long-term impacts they have on our planets resources.


As with the London Plan, connecting to Heat Networks (DHN) are at the top of the heating heirachy.

And as with cars, we should be choosing shared and communal systems where possible.

Instead of using a car, take a bus.

Instead of a single, domestic air-source heat pump, utilise a heat network.

Buses and trains, as with heat networks, are transitioning towards renewable energy sources.

Various types of heat (energy) networks exist.

From local, building level networks, to large, city wide networks.

Granted, the title of this article could be deemed as ‘clickbait’.


Because our energy networks could utilise heat pumps as their primary source of heat-input, though you also can connect into local water or ground sources.

As one commentator said “This is why the Viking network in South Tyneside will be such a significant exemplar as it will be the first to harness the Tyne.”

New Build

There’s a real opportunity for heat networks to grow and become a core pillar in the decarbonisation of our built environment.

Heat Networks

With correct planning, the new build space can maximise the potential of energy networks — we can quite feasibly achieve smart grids which would help drive up efficiency and minimise waste.


There are about 28million homes in the UK, a high majority of these properties are currently reliant on fossil fuels.

In the very near future, millions of homeowners are going to have to make a decision about how to upgrade their home to be low-carbon or even net-zero carbon.

Not every homeowner will have the physical space (outdoor) for an air-source heat pump — unless planning regulations change and it becomes normalised to see heat pumps on the side of buildings as it commonplace across a lot of Europe. — This will not rule out heat pump technology however, it’ll just limit the options of available air-source heat pumps and drive growth and opportunities in the water-source heat pump market.

Across London, in high-rise apartments especially, we have seen a move towards ambient-loop (low temperature) communal heat networks following updates to SAP and guidance from the GLA (see below for more details in an earlier article: The future is electric).

However, as heat networks grow in popularity and availability — owners of domestic properties might find that doors open for them to swap out their gas boiler and install a water-source heat pump that can connect onto a heat network.

Retrofit at scale

Part of a programme called Healthy, Clean Cities — many private investors have been looking into pathways that will help unlock the greatest challenge of all: Large scale retrofit.

Essentially, expanding heat networks and creating ‘Green cities’ isn’t seen as a cost problem — it’s an investment problem — and one that can be solved through education, data and engagement.

Rufus Grantham, Bankers without Boundaries has written up a superb and detailed article about the work they have done in this space.

One of the other benefits of networks comes with data — as we move towards electrification, we open up possibilities of connecting into smart systems — smart homes can connect into smart grids.

This future becomes far more exciting to ponder— users can become more informed and have the opportunities to seamlessly connect various technologies (batteries and PV for starters).

The work in this space is multifaceted, there are countless environmental and social considerations to be made — but also a host of opportunities ahead for us all.



Join me on my sustainability journey @ https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanphilp/

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