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Driving the Shift to Sustainable Living: Drawing Parallels between Heat Pumps and Electric Vehicles

Blog: By Charlotte Shields, Assistant Policy & Strategy Consultant, Cenex

As the temperature drops, heating becomes a necessity for most of us. However, the choices we make to stay warm and move around can have a significant impact on our energy consumption and carbon emissions. Fortunately, there are alternative options available that can help reduce our carbon footprint.

Electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps are two such alternatives that can help decarbonise heating and driving. Heat pumps use electricity to extract heat from the air or ground, making them a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional gas or oil boilers. Similarly, EVs run on electricity instead of petrol or diesel, making them a cleaner and greener option for transportation.

While the UK Government has announced that it will phase out gas boilers, petrol, and diesel cars by banning their sales, the shift to electric alternatives will require individual effort. The adoption of these technologies will depend on each person’s willingness to make the switch. By choosing to adopt these alternatives, we can contribute to reducing our carbon footprint and creating a cleaner, healthier environment for ourselves and future generations.

Prior to joining Cenex, Charlotte conducted research into the role of individuals’ understanding in the transition from boilers to heat pumps. The work provides insights which could be useful for the transition to EVs given the parallels between the two issues.

The research found that for someone to consider heat pump adoption and navigate the process of installation, they need to be able to create a set of three understandings:

  1. That a heat pump is a desirable option for them as a heating system.
  2. That heat pump installation is possible in their current home and personal circumstances.
  3. That life with a heat pump can be an acceptable experience for them.

When someone can create all three of these understandings, this appears to help them consider having a heat pump installed to further navigate the process. When they cannot create one or more of these understandings, their considerations are hindered.

The work then assessed to what extent materials made available online by stakeholders who promote and facilitate heat pump adoption – including government, energy companies, manufacturers and advice bodies – relate to the three understandings. These stakeholders were found to predominantly provide technical information about heat pumps and installation. They provided less information supporting people to develop an understanding that heat pumps are desirable for them and that life with a heat pump can be an acceptable experience. This means that those organisations who wish to encourage people to have a heat pump provide relatively little support for individuals to create two of the three necessary understandings. This is important because it suggests that the stakeholders do not provide adequate information to help people consider committing to the installation of a heat pump.

The desirability of heat pumps is a personal matter and relates to an individual’s values, ideals and goals, as well as the meanings they attach to heat pumps. Meanings related to sustainability, environmental concerns and action against climate change are commonly attributed to heat pumps because they have lower carbon emissions than fossil fuel-burning gas or oil boilers (due to their use of electricity which is generated from renewable sources). There may be many other meanings which someone could associate with a heat pump, but the necessity of the desirability of heat pumps for the individual means it is worth exploring the range of meanings which different people might identify with in order to help them consider heat pumps as a lucrative option. The research’s identification of the importance of the understanding that heat pumps are desirable for the individual means that stakeholders who promote and facilitate heat pump adoption should consider how they might communicate with householders to build their interest in this type of heating system.

Research into heat pump adoption provides an example of how stakeholders interested in decarbonising transport might develop their approach to engagement with potential adopters of low-carbon transport options like EVs or behaviour-based solutions where mode-shift is required. To support people in making changes for transport to reach net zero, we need to understand their values and provide them with propositions that resonate with them. Self-reported knowledge about EVs was much lower among females than male participants in the Department for Transport’s National Travel Attitudes Study published on 18th January 2024 (47% of males and 28% of females reported good to complete knowledge, whereas 32% of males and 56% of females reported low to no knowledge). This points to demographic disparity in consumer engagement with the transition to EVs. Establishing the understandings and meanings which resonate with different groups of people may help to address this gap and improve wider public interest in EV adoption.

With the development of bidirectional charging and the potential for a household to use an EV as a supplementary energy source to power a heat pump – which could aid the transition of the electricity grid towards renewable sources by facilitating greater flexibility and resilience of supply, there is reason to consider the shifts towards heat pumps and EVs together. Learnings from heat pump adoption may therefore be increasingly relevant for the adoption of EVs and for the many benefits of developing smart technologies to be realised.

Interested in learning more about bi-directional charging? Check out our online course on Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Charging here: Bidirectional Charging (Vehicle-to-Grid / V2G) by Cenex (Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon & Fuel Cell Technologies) on cademy.co.uk