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Heat pumps could help alleviate fuel poverty, shows new research by Edinburgh and Oxford Universities

A new study shows heat pumps could provide a cost-effective alternative to off-gas heating and offers valuable insights for policymakers working to address fuel poverty

Heat pump outside building

Fuel poverty, when people struggle to afford the energy to keep their homes warm, is a critical issue in the UK and has been exacerbated by the energy crisis. This problem can be more severe in ‘off-gas’ areas, where homes cannot be connected to the mains gas grid. Currently, around 11% of UK homes are heated by electricity and 5% by oil. These options are costly and are associated with the highest risk of fuel poverty.

A new study led by the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford has shown that heat pumps (HP) can provide a cost-effective alternative to off-gas heating to alleviate fuel poverty, offering around three times the efficiency of resistive electric heaters (ERH). The study was a result of interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Engineering at Edinburgh, Associate Professor Thomas Morstyn at the Department of Engineering Science, and Oxford's Environmental Change Institute. The findings offer valuable insights for policymakers working to address fuel poverty and decarbonization targets, and the method can be adapted to other countries with appropriate datasets.

The study, addressing a gap in research on HPs as a means of alleviating fuel poverty, analysed both the potential reductions in poverty rates and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if HPs were to replace all off-gas heating in England and Scotland.

The researchers used national household datasets alongside electricity substation information from network operators to examine in detail 9 government regions in England and 32 Local Authorities in Scotland. Their findings suggest that there are ‘priority regions’ where HPs would have low network upgrade costs and high benefits, addressing fuel poverty and contributing to decarbonisation. By replacing off-gas heating with HPs, the associated GHG emissions could drop by 69%, the researchers say.

HPs have a low running cost but a high upfront cost for households, with installation around £8,500 for a typical UK household. This means government support (£7,500 for air-source heat pumps1) is currently necessary to make them an attractive alternative. Future mass production and deployment could also help reduce the upfront costs.

Electrical network upgrade cost is another barrier to heat pump adoption, an expense which is passed on in household bills. The change from off-gas heating to HPs would require around 12% of primary substations in England and Scotland to be upgraded to support the additional electrical demand.

Despite these costs, the report shows the cost benefit of HPs would be felt in both normal and crisis periods, meaning increased adoption could yield long-term benefits.


Evaluating the Social Benefits and Network Costs of Heat-Pumps as an Energy Crisis Intervention was recently published in iScience