The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that gas boiler sales should stop by 2025 to meet emission reduction goals. Heat pumps, which operate by extracting warmth from the ground, air or water, are often regarded as one of the viable alternatives to heat homes without relying on fossil fuels.
Some countries have already made substantial progress in phasing out fossil fuel based heating technologies such as gas or oil boilers. Finland is one example which has seen a widespread transition to heat pumps: in a country of just over three million households, an estimated 1,030,000 heat pumps have been sold to date. Meanwhile less than 200,000 heat pumps have been sold for the UK’s 27.6 million households since 2000.
A recent study from SEG researchers and TIPC Academic Director Johan Schot explains why home heating developments have taken very different paths over the last 45 years in these two countries, comparing in particular the role of different user types (explained in the following section) in the different phases of these developments. What led to heat pumps in Finland becoming “the normal and rational choice for a heating system” (Hyysalo et al., 2018, p.880) when they remain a rare sighting in the UK?
The Finnish heat pump transition
The successful heat pump transition in Finland can be outlined under the following three phases:
The start-up phase (1975-1985) featured pilots with ground source heat pumps (GSHPs), largely in response to the global oil crises of the mid 1970s. There were a handful of small manufacturers developing GSHPs and user producers progressive enough to experiment with geothermal heat. However, uncertainty over the technology’s reliability, negative media narratives, and bankruptcies among GHSP suppliers due to falling oil prices in the 80s meant that just 10,000 heat pumps were installed over this decade.
The acceleration phase (1995-2015) saw user-producers continue to advocate heat pump technology at trade fairs. Improvements in technology, the introduction of air source heat pumps (ASHPs) and positive examples from neighbouring Sweden supported expansion. Crucially, in 1999 the Finnish Heat Pump Association (SULPU) was formed with a vision that by 2020, a million heat pumps would be installed in Finland. SULPU, which took a key user-legitimator role, worked together with Motiva, the Finnish energy efficiency agency, to raise awareness, develop standards and train installers. The market was also encouraged via Government policies phasing out fossil fuel based heating and incentivising low-carbon heating options. The emergence of user-intermediaries on independent websites and forums, who shared their user experiences, also helped. These factors led to total sales exceeding 600,000 by 2014.
And finally, during the stabilisation phase (2015-present) the established industry offered off-the-shelf products, giving all users affordable, low-maintenance heating options that meet the demands of the Finnish climate. Total heat pump sales reached 1 million in 2020 and heat pumps have become an established heating choice for many households.
The British heat pump non-transition
In the UK, heat pumps are used in barely 1% of households, meaning the technology has been stuck in the start-up phase since the 1970s. The UK and Finland’s enthusiastic user-producers shared the same early challenges: lack of awareness, technological difficulties, and opposition from the incumbent fossil fuel industry.
UK policy efforts to address low-carbon heating options in the 2000s included VAT reductions and grant programmes to support uptake. But heat pump field trials underperformed similar ones in Europe: users frequently reported difficulties operating their new heat pumps, indicating lack of knowledge and support by installers and peers, in contrast to the widespread expertise and informal guidance available to owners of the ever-present gas boilers.
Building a heat pump constituency
One key difference between the UK and Finland has been that British heat pump enthusiasts lacked the policy support and networking opportunities to enable an acceleration phase of the transition. In contrast, Finland’s successful uptake for heat pumps benefited from the presence of SULPU and their active awareness raising, networking and lobbying. Finnish actors could also access Swedish expertise, their neighbouring country having faced also heating challenges and sharing similar climatic and cultural preferences.
While the UK now has established heat pump organisations, their voices have not been as unified or loudly heard as SULPU was in Finland. As a result, the UK’s fragmented organisations have not had enough political impact (yet) to expand the heat pump niche into a flourishing industry. Lacking a prominent vision for the sector, the UK has taken longer to overcome the broad lack of awareness among consumers, architects, installers and housing developers.
In contrast, with the help of Motiva, the early user-producers who formed SULPU cultivated a broad constituency behind Finland’s developing heat pump tradition, contributing to a successful transition. Even outside of SULPU, user producers in Finland shared a strong history of cooperation. Users for example attended housing fairs and organised “heat pump days” showcasing different options, and run dedicated online user forums, blogs and websites providing practical advice and a visible demonstration of the technology’s value for Finnish homes. These efforts were reflected in the broader distribution of motives given by Finnish heat pump users, compared to more concentrated UK motives operating within a niche and responding to more specific demands. The interview subjects also illustrated how financial and comfort motivations in Finland compare to environmental motivations in the UK.
“Gas mafia”, regime resistance, and how users can help overcome them
As well as lacking these key factors which encouraged heat pumps uptake in Finland, some UK-specific challenges impede the widespread adoption of heat pumps. The incumbent gas networks are powerful in terms of their lobbying reach, along with competitive supply prices which appeals to consumers. Attempts to encourage renewable alternatives such as the Renewable Heat Incentive left heat pumps competing with solar and biomass options, resulting in comparatively little money allocated for heat pump installation.
The example of Finland’s active users offers potential paths forward for the UK’s stalled heat pump transition. Strong actors, like SULPU in Finland who had a clear vision for the sector and its policy needs, have the potential to challenge the gas network’s influence. Meanwhile, active peer-to-peer learning and networking can further raise awareness and build trust of the technology amongst user-consumers. Over time, this can legitimise unfamiliar technologies like heat pumps, and encourage the replacement of gas boilers with low-carbon heating systems. This requires that positive stories and examples of renewable heating options like heat pumps move from niche trade press to the mainstream media. In addition, policy should aim to support the development of strong communities of user-producers, avoiding the comparatively passive user roles found in the start-up stage of the British heat pump transition. Subsidies and education should be paired with the sustained, deep involvement of user-groups throughout the transition process to benefit from their capacity to accelerate transitions and overcome market uncertainty.