New research examines heat pump transition between Finland and the UK

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The UK needs climate-conscious home improvers and influencers if it hopes to get close to Government targets of 600,000 domestic heat pumps by 2028, new research suggests.

The University of Sussex Business School researchers compared the stalled heat pump transition in the UK with Finland, where one in three homes have been fitted with a heat pump, concluding that contrasting levels of enthusiasm in the take-up of heat pumps by homeowners was one of key reasons why the Nordic country had been so much more successful in its domestic heating transition.

Lead author Dr Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), commented on the findings: “Robust government policy support for heat pumps is needed in the UK, but our study also shows that the strong user engagement in the Finnish heat pump adoption was one of key factors explaining the successful diffusion of heat pumps there in contrast with the continuing struggles in the UK.

“The heat pump movement in Finland began in the mid-1970s and then accelerated in the early 2000s while it is clear that the heat pump transition in the UK has remained stuck in the start-up phase since the 1980s.

“In Finland, users have been very active in sharing their experiences, and without them the heat pump transition could have been much slower, resulting in persistent market uncertainties that manufacturers and installers may not have been able to solve just by themselves.”

The study suggests that a collective action by households who have heat pumps, using for example social media and online forums and detailing their own projects, could help form a social movement to actively lobby for a change to the current UK domestic heating industry dominated by gas companies.

Researchers interviewed more than 50 heat pump adopters and industry experts in Finland and the UK for the study, scrutinising government policy documents, industry reports and academic literature on heat pumps, as well as internet archives and historical records of online forums and groups going back 30 years.

In Finland, a country of just over three million households, an estimated 1,030,000 heat pumps have been sold.

By comparison, less than 200,000 heat pumps are thought to have been installed in the UK since 2000.

The research authors suggest that heat pump home improvers in Finland were more focused in supporting and connecting with each other, especially through online forums, during their country’s start-up phase compared to the current state of play in the UK.

The movement in Finland then grew through heat pump influencers who shared their experiences and stories of heat pump use more widely through events, social media and the press.

Researchers found limited evidence of a similar, active, user-legitimator base in the UK.

The research also identified the UK’s older housing stock, lack of legislation encouraging heat pump adoption particularly in new build homes, ‘very limited efforts’ by UK utility companies to promote their use, and Finland’s much lower reliance on gas as other reasons why the two countries take-up of heat pumps contrast so markedly.

Industry experts also highlighted a lack of awareness around heat pumps in the UK as a key barrier to take-up – a lack of knowledge not only among the general public but also architects, builders, property developers, heating installers, and policymakers.

The ‘User innovation, niche construction and regime destabilization in heat pump transition’-study can be found from the Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions-journal.

This story was first reported by the University of Sussex.