Sky-high gas prices have sent demand for heat pumps booming across Europe, exposing a range of bottlenecks limiting industry’s ability to deliver, including a shortage of skilled labour, as well as the need to simultaneously insulate buildings to ensure maximum efficiency.
Heat pumps, sometimes described as reverse air conditioners, use electricity to concentrate heat potential and are comparatively more energy efficient than gas boilers.
As Europe’s appetite for gas comes under scrutiny for financing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, Europeans are rushing to install heat pumps in a bid to eliminate Russian gas.
The task is gigantic, though. Only 17 million heat pumps are already installed across Europe relative to Germany’s 20 million gas boilers.
“We need a gas reduction strategy, and one that really has an effect,” said German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck on 20 March. “That means we should stop installing new gas heating systems in houses,” he added.
In practice, this means installing heat pumps instead of gas boilers. Already in December, the newish German government decided that any new heating system installed after 1 January 2025 should be required to run on renewable energy. The industry understood this benchmark as an implicit mandate for heat pumps.
Germany is not alone in doubling down on the technology, with France also shifting subsidies to support the installation of new heat pumps. In the US, the Biden administration even reportedly considered a wartime industrial effort to mass-manufacture heat pumps and ship them across the Atlantic in order to help Europeans wean themselves off Russian gas.
The European Commission too is rolling up its sleeves. Through its REPowerEU initiative, the EU executive wants 30 million new heat pumps installed by 2030, saying this could save the EU 35 billion cubic meters (bcm) in gas consumption per year.
For many of these programmes, inspiration came from Britain, where the level of ambition had already been raised before the Ukraine war.
“The UK have very ambitious targets at 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028,” says Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a non-profit group.
But with demand booming, the industry is struggling to keep up. “At the moment, demand is so high that installers are having problems installing the devices,” says Thomas Nowak, secretary general of the European heat pump association (EHPA).
Lack of skilled workers
It’s not just the manufacturing capacity that is running behind – the lack of skilled workers is also an issue.
But the industry is confident it can handle growing demand. While workers are currently overwhelmed, the “flexibility of manufacturers and third parties will bring about new technologies and business models to the market in order to be able to make more offers,” Nowak said.
Sceptics are quick to point to barriers preventing the mass roll-out of heat pumps, saying they perform poorly in badly insulated homes. Nowak does not dispute this, saying houses first need to be examined for their general level of insulation and electrical readiness before a quote can be given. If the price is accepted, installation can begin.
To speed things up, Nowak says any general construction entrepreneur can carry out the first step. And when it comes to installation, he says worker upskilling can be quick.
“A normal heating installer is already qualified to install a heat pump. What they have to learn in addition can be taught in a week,” he says. “We have previously organised five-day training courses at EHPA, during which we taught workers four days of theory, gave them one day of practice, and they were ready to install heat pumps.”
Another barrier preventing the mass roll-out of heat pumps is the grid’s ability to handle millions of new electric heating systems, with critics warning about the risk of blackouts if the network is not simultaneously reinforced.
But energy utilities are confident that millions more can be added without putting grid stability at risk. “The lights will stay on with 50 million heat pumps,” the industry claims. “The large-scale roll-out of electric heat pumps will not jeopardise the security of supply of electricity, not now and not in the future,” reads a joint statement by the CEOs of 13 energy groups which was sent to the European Commission last year.
“Operators have been working together for decades to ensure a constant and high level of grid stability and have successfully faced similar challenges in dealing with the millions of electric devices which have been deployed in all households across the EU in recent years,” the industry coalition said.
Still, improving building insulation is seen as a prerequisite for the mass roll-out of heat pumps and prevent grid overload.
In Germany, the government is already aware of this. “We should massively advance building insulation, provide the necessary funds for this, but also raise standards in such a way that gas consumption is reduced,” Habeck noted.
“You cannot possibly have 24 million heat pumps turn on at the same time in the morning. All across the UK, we will never have enough electricity generating capacity,” says Steven Heath, a heat pump expert at Knauf Insulation.
While he believes heat pumps “are an answer” to decrease Europe’s reliance on gas, Heath says it is crucial that they are “installed in efficient homes, otherwise they’re not the answer.”
Experts like Rosenow appear to agree. “It makes a lot of sense to start with those homes that are already heat pump ready, where you can achieve good efficiencies,” he said. However, according to him, a large enough heat pump can heat any home. “What I always say is, if you have no insulation, you should at least have the basics.”
The F-gas problem
While the obstacles can all be overcome, the industry also warns about regulatory risks.
Heat pumps currently use a family of refrigerants called fluorinated gases. F-gases were developed in the 1990s to replace the ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) but have subsequently come under fire for their high global-warming potential.
Much like CO2, F-gases drive global warming and are very stable, meaning they will stick around in the atmosphere for a long period of time.
To address this, the EU decided a phase-down of HFCs in 2015, imposing annual production quotas on manufacturers in order to incentivise the use of alternatives.
But the industry is ringing the alarm that this could endanger the push to install heat pumps.
“Any new measure in the revised F-Gas Regulation that would limit in a foreseeable future the availability or the choice of refrigerants (bans, stricter quotas) would necessarily slow down the speed at which heat-pump equipment will be deployed,” warns an industry coalition, which includes Nowak’s European Heat Pump Association (EHPA).
While alternative refrigerants may work for some applications, the wide range of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat-pump technologies and applications requires a variety of refrigerants, according to the group, which also includes the Association of Installers of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heat Pumps in Europe (AREA) and the Association of the Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heat Pump Industry in Europe (EPEE).
Having a full range of F-gases available is necessary “to speed up the massive deployment in a safe and highly efficient manner,” the group said in a letter to the European Commission.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]