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Study says heat pumps are not environmentally friendly

Michelle Ward
21st September 2010
A new report has found that UK air source heat pumps have the same carbon footprint as gaseous fuels used in conventional heating.
Emissions of powerful greenhouse gas, hydro fluorocarbon (HFC) add another 20 per cent to the carbon footprint of UK air source heat pumps, according to a study released today from Atlantic Consulting.

The study finds that the overall carbon footprint of a heat pump is approximately the same or higher than the footprint of using a gaseous fuel.

"HFCs are harmful, because they cause global warming," said Eric Johnson, the main author of the report. "They are very powerful global warmers, with 1,000-2,000 times the potency of carbon dioxide."

Renewable Heat Incentive
The report’s findings may impact some UK and EU policies in the area of heat pumps, especially the UK’s proposed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which promotes the use of air source heat pumps.

Under the proposed RHI, home and office owners in the UK would be subsidised to replace gas or LPG heating with heat pumps. According to the study, though, the installation of heat pumps would cause a very minor reduction in carbon emissions, if at all.

"The Government probably wants to go back to its sums and rethink this," said Johnson. "The question is, does it really make sense to give subsidies for no carbon benefit? It’s a lot of money for no improvement."

The study focused on air source heat pumps, rather than ground or water source heat pumps, even though Johnson said all heat pumps have some HFC emissions. Air source heat pumps are the primary ones present in the UK and the ones targeted by the RHI, said Johnson.

"I think [the RHI] probably needs more differentiation," said Johnson. "There are probably a lot of cases where heat pumps make sense. It’s not all negative, but people just jumped on this stuff without knowing everything."

Government policies
HFC emissions are not included in the evaluation of heat pumps in UK regulations, such as the Standard Assessment Procedure for Buildings and the proposed RHI. EU laws like the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Using Products Directive do not include HFC emissions either, even though various European studies have pointed out their significance.

A similar study published this summer by the University of Delft in the Netherlands found that "even though heat pumps are generally considered to be sustainable heating systems because they extract heat from renewable sources rather than by burning non-renewable fossil fuels this research shows that a heat pump is actually not more environmentally friendly than a gas-fired boiler".

The Renewable Energy Association, which represents renewable energy companies and has been lobbying for the RHI, declined to comment on the study today.

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