Heat pumps : the core technology for sustainable heating

A recent report by the IEA highlights that heat pumps are essential to reducing the use of natural gas for heating, while improving energy security, reducing emissions and ensuring affordable energy bills.

"Heat pumps, powered by low‐emissions electricity, are the central technology in the global transition to secure and sustainable heating" stresses the recent IEA special report "The Future of Heat Pumps"(1). The heating of most buildings around the world – such as homes, offices, schools and factories – still relies on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas. Heating in buildings is responsible for 4 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions annually,or 10% of global emissions. However, heat pumps currently available on the market are three to five times more energy efficient than natural gas boilers. Many heat pumps can also provide cooling, which eliminates the need for a separate air conditioner for the 2.6 billion people who will live in regions requiring heating and cooling by 2050. 


Around 10% of the world’s space heating needs were met by heat pumps in 2021, but the heat pump market has been growing strongly in recent years, thanks to falling costs and strong incentives. Global heat pump sales rose by nearly 15% in 2021, double the average of the past decade, led by the European Union where they rose by around 35% (see https://iifiir.org/en/news/heat-pump-sales-grew-dramatically-in-europe-in-2021 ). Heat pump sales in 2022 are set to hit record levels in response to the global energy crisis, especially in Europe where some countries - Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria - are seeing sales double in the first half of 2022 compared with the same period last year. China remains the largest market for new sales, while North America has the largest number of domestic heat pumps today. Together, these regions, along with Japan and Korea, are also major manufacturing hubs, home to the industry’s largest players.


The potential of heat pumps to cut dependence on natural gas for heating is particularly in the European Union, where natural gas is the most widely used heating fuel and where gas prices have risen the most. Annual sales of heat pumps in the EU could rise to 7 million by 2030 – up from 2 million in 2021 – if governments succeed in hitting their emissions reduction and energy security goals. This would help achieve the REPowerEU objective of ending Russian gas imports well before 2030. 


Heat pumps ara generally cheaper over their lifetime than fossil fuel boilers, thanks to their higher energy efficiency. Government policy support is needed, though, to help consumers overcome heat pumps’ higher upfront costs compared to alternatives. The costs of purchasing and installing a heat pump can be two to four times as much as those of a gas boiler. Financial incentives for heat pumps are already available in over 30 countries, which together cover more than 70% of heating demand today. Many of them also provide additional support to low-income households for whom energy savings from a heat pump can be significant, ranging between 2% and 6% of household income


In a scenario in which all governments achieve their energy and climate pledges in full, heat pumps become the main way of decarbonising space and water heating worldwide. The IEA estimates that heat pumps have the potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by at least 500 million tonnes in 2030 – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of all cars in Europe today. Leading manufacturers are seeing promising signs that today’s momentum and political support could put the industry on a trajectory that triples sales by 2030 – and they have accordingly announced plans to invest more than USD 4 billion in expanding heat pump production, mostly in Europe. 


Heat pumps can also address heating needs of industry and district heating. Large heat pumps can provide heat up to 140‐160°C today, with higher temperatures possible through innovation and improved designs. The paper, food and chemicals industries have the largest near‐term opportunities, with nearly 30% of their combined heating needs able to be addressed by heat pumps. 


Of course, the rapid expansion of heat pumps presents some challenges. Heat pumps will inevitably increase electricity demand but energy efficiency can greatly reduce the impacts on the grid, alongside improved grid planning. On the other hand, global heat pump supply and installation could require over 1.3 million workers by 2030, nearly triple the current amount, raising the potential for skilled labour shortages, especially for installers. Special training programmes and the inclusion of heat pumps in certifications for plumbers and electrical engineers could help avoid the risk of shortages in skilled labour. 


The additional global upfront investment in heat pumps required to reach announced climate pledges reaches USD 160 billion annually by 2030. However, these costs are outweighed by economy-wide savings on fuel, especially if energy prices remain close to current levels. 



Did you know? The IIR has released several Informatory Notes on heat pump technologies, available for download on FRIDOC.




(1) IEA (2022), The Future of Heat Pumps, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-heat-pumps, License: CC BY 4.0