Electrification of heating: the role of heat pumps

Dr Tina Fawcett, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Russell Layberry, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Nick Eyre, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford


Heating accounted for  44%  of UK national energy demand in 2011 (DECC, 2013). It is currently predominantly supplied by natural gas. However, the future of heating  is thought to be very different , with electrification expected on a grand scale. UK 2050 scenarios which meet the 80% carbon reduction target universally include an electrified heat supply. Most commonly, heat pumps are seen as the key technology, delivering 80-90% of heating.  While heat pumps can deliver low carbon energy services, given sufficient supplies of low carbon electricity, their contribution to the other energy policy goals of security of supply and affordable costs are much less certain.

This paper will set out the major challenges for widespread adoption of heat pumps in the UK and worldwide, present original modelling work on the effect of heat pump adoption on electricity system peaks globally and for individual countries, discuss these findings in the context of other challenges to electricity networks, and present policy options to encourage a transition to heat pumps.

Heat pumps are not a simple replacement for current heating systems, and there are many technological, economic and social issues still to be fully explored.  Based on an international literature review, this paper identifies the key issues for the technology and its installers, users, electricity systems, and governments. The potential contribution of heat pumps to meeting all three energy  policy goals is discussed.

The effect of heat pumps on peak electricity demand, identified as a key issue, is explored in more detail by developing a model of global heating energy use. This geographical model uses historical population-weighted temperature data, and assumptions (supported by evidence) about heating energy use and the efficiency of heat pumps to give first estimates of daily electricity peak demand.* It shows the increases of electricity demand and particularly peak demand with widespread adoption of heat pumps. It considers how global or regional electricity networks could reduce peaks compared with independent national electricity networks. These findings highlight a key challenge of adopting heat pumps, which has been previously under-researched.

By setting out clearly the key challenges for widespread adoption of heat pumps, particularly in relation to electricity supply systems, this paper creates a good evidence base for policy. It shows what widespread adoption would mean for individuals and organisations, and how it could contribute (or not) to the UK’s energy policy goals.  Our research shows that there are many ‘barriers’ in the way of delivering high levels of heat pumps, and suggests a range of policies that could help reduce these barriers . However, it also suggests that there will be limits (technical, economic and social in origin) to the uptake of heat pumps, and that other low carbon heating solutions will also be required.

*Reviewers: please note that modelling is still in its early stages, so detailed results are not available to put in the abstract at this stage. Full results will be delivered by the end of April 2014, therefore will be available for reporting at the conference.



DECC, 2013. The future of heating: Meeting the challenge. Department for Energy and Climate Change, London.

Key word set

Heat pumps, electrification, carbon emissions, peak electricity demand, heating, energy policy


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