Accelerated heat pump rollout would have limited impact by next winter

An accelerated rollout of heat pumps would have a “fairly small” impact by next winter in terms of mitigating any shortfalls in gas supplies resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a leading energy academic has stated.

Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at University College London, told a webinar on the conflict held on Friday (4 March) by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), that it would take time to mobilise the supply chain for mass installation of the electrified heating devices.

He said: “It would be a fairly small change by next winter because it would take time to get supply chains moving. There are some existing programmes for fuel poor households, but they are small, and it takes time to ramp up these schemes.

But heat pumps are nevertheless an important as a “medium-term investment” in reducing the UK’s reliance on gas, Watson said: “If we don’t start now, we won’t get that marginal gain and the bigger gain in the next winter and a bigger one the winter after that.”

He added that energy efficiency improvements are likely to have a bigger short-term impact but that “ideally” they should be installed in tandem with heat pumps.

At an earlier webinar on the crisis on Friday organised by Aurora Energy Research, the consultancy’s research director Richard Howard said European countries could cope with being cut off from Russian gas supplies next winter.

He said the costs of regulatory interventions in the gas and power markets that would be required to keep energy supplies at an affordable level would be “considerable” but no more than that spent by governments in their response to the Covid-19 crisis over the last two years.

Replenishing storage facilities alone to fill the supply gap next winter would cost €60-100 billion, which would require some government intervention, according to research published by Aurora ahead of the event.

Howard said: “While the costs are large, they are an order of magnitude less than the response to the Covid crisis.  It’s not that it can’t be done but it comes at a considerable cost.”

At the ECIU meeting, Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick University, said the UK should not “push the panic button” about potentially being deprived of the fifth of the UK’s liquified natural gas (LNG) supplies that are currently imported from Russia.

He said that, given that LNG in turn meets a fifth of overall UK gas, Russian shipments are “not a huge share but not insignificant”.

Bradshaw said the UK’s access to production from Norwegian and UK gas fields means that it would be premature to “push the panic button”.

He also said that additional storage, like the Rough facility recently closed down by Centrica, would not have made “much difference” to gas prices and that extra capacity can be tapped in the UK’s gas grid pipelines and LNG terminals.

Both events took place on the same day that the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a new paper on how European countries should tackle the challenges raised by their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

In the short term, the report said “all avenues to diversify supply” must be explored, such as keeping nuclear and coal plants running longer than previously planned and ensuring Europe is the first in line for any extra LNG capacity through a combination of political and market incentives.

However, in the longer-term, the report said renewables must be at the centre of any new energy strategy because they offer the best bet for energy security.

And it said that if European governments can withstand the short-term pain from higher energy costs, including measures to protect consumers as much as possible, they can benefit through reduced reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

“For years, politicians have tried to avoid these difficult conversations and decisions,” it concluded. “Now is the time to be honest about the trade-offs needed to ensure peace and security.”