“The lowest carbon heat needs to be the lowest cost heat”

HPA's Charlotte Lee

Lucy Dixon met up with the Heat Pump Association’s Charlotte Lee, to find out about her ambitions and priorities as the organisation’s first ever CEO.

Arranging an interview with Charlotte Lee on what turned out to be the morning that Rishi Sunak’s net zero rejig was leaked made for an even more interesting conversation, and meant that almost every question was prefaced with ‘depending on what the PM says later’. We now know, of course, that the speech included the delaying of the phase out of gas and oil boilers (plus the sale of new petrol and diesel cars) until 2035, and in the following days it became apparent that the Energy Efficiency Taskforce had been ditched too.

Charlotte spoke about the need to put any change to the dates into context, saying: “It’s really important to look back to where that policy came from. The consultation closed in January 2022 and was on phasing out fossil fuel heating systems, in off gas properties first, by 2026. We’re 20 months on without a government response to that consultation, which in itself demonstrates that there was not consensus within the ministerial team on where to go with that. As we got closer to a general election and 2026, it felt inevitable that that deadline was at risk and exacerbating that is the cost of living crisis, the price of electricity relative to gas and the upfront cost of the heat pumps themselves, which are all barriers to the deployment.”

The announcement sparked much frustration among the clean heat sector, but Charlotte was clear that the case for heat pumps remains strong. She said: “What is still on the table, that is key to unlocking widescale heat pump deployment in the UK, is the continuation of the Future Homes Standard – if it goes the way that’s been proposed, it will absolutely increase deployment. We’re really keen that it gets released as soon as possible and we get moving, as every day that passes means the 2025 deadline or ambition becomes more and more unlikely. It’s a no-regret solution to focus on new build.”

Core goals

Charlotte has been in the role since April this year and, as the HPA’s first ever chief executive, her ambitions for her first year – and beyond – at the helm have been clear, she says: “My core goals are to provide a united industry front and that’s through collaborating with industry stakeholders and making sure that our policy asks are aligned, because it makes it much easier for government to listen to an aligned industry.”

Another one of the tasks for the first year was to increase the HPA team, adding in a head of policy and communications, as well as a technical consultant, Charlotte says. “Growing an in-house team allows us to have a better understanding and a clearer focus and also to build that support network that’s really vital in achieving any meaningful change.” Since 2022 the membership has also grown, by over 100%, so it’s a busy time for Charlotte and her team. “It demonstrates that there is a respect for the HPA and interest in what we’re doing, but it’s also testament to the marketplace for heat pumps.”

Role of installers

Alongside the membership of manufacturers and other stakeholders, Charlotte talks about the importance of installers. She says: “The installer is absolutely vital. They are the ones that speak with the consumer on the day-to-day basis, they are trusted by customers to undertake the installation and their advice is held in high regard. Getting the installers on board is going to be crucial, so the HPA has tried to make the journey simpler for them by working with the awarding organisations to create a regulated qualification that can provide s a top up to existing heating engineers and what they’re already doing. It means four to six days of training to reskill from classic heating engineer work to be qualified to install a heat pump. Also, within our membership, we’ve got the ability to train 40,000 individuals a year to install heat pumps.”

It sounds like an industry primed for huge growth, but there is one key ingredient missing, Charlotte explains: “We’ve got the training, we’ve got the ability to provide the training, we’ve got the heating engineer base. What we haven’t got, yet, is the impetus and the reason to invest – the big drive from the majority to say this is where we are headed, we’d better get ready to deliver.” This impetus will come, largely, from government policy but also consumer demand. The more households asking for heat pumps the more installers will want a slice of the action.

The Future Homes Standard has, Charlotte says, potential to attract many more installers to the market and create an enormous push towards mass rollout of heat pumps. “It will increase deployment of heat pumps and also prime the installer market, because it’ll become a more familiar technology. The housebuilders have the ability to dictate what they want in their properties and the installers will, if they want to win the tender, need to provide it.”

Raising awareness

The constant flow of anti-heat pump stories in the national media is also something that the HPA has a role in tackling, although Charlotte says the organisation, sensibly, limits its responses to “providing a strong stance against factually incorrect information” but not reacting to every piece of negative media coverage.

To assist with this, HPA has commissioned a suite of consumer facing articles to raise awareness of heat pumps. “These outline that they do work, how they work and what could be done by people now to consider a move to them in future,” Charlotte says. She points out that heat pumps do come with a cost that some households can’t afford, even with the increased BUS funding, and says the HPA is mindful of this and the cost of living crisis that has shone such a bright light on energy prices.

“From HPA’s point of view, we are very keen to be doing the work in the background to support installer training, to support installer development, to support consistency and clarity in standards within the industry, while calling on government to help us make this message easier and to help stimulate that consumer demand by supporting the reduction of upfront costs but also reducing the running costs. We want to see really clear policy priorities to provide the certainty because that’s what’s needed for the installers as well as the consumers, and the manufacturers.”

Rebalancing energy prices

One topic that wasn’t addressed in any of the government announcements was the price difference between electricity and gas, and this is an area Charlotte says is “vital” to consumer demand for heat pumps. She adds: “The lowest carbon heat needs to be the lowest cost heat and reducing the price of electricity relative to gas and oil will, in no small part, be a really important proposition to drive up consumer demand and to support deployment of heat pumps.”

The HPA has a paper in the works addressing this, outlining what “the rebalancing of the environmental and social obligations” to the levies on energy bills looks like and the impact any changes would have on running costs. She explains: “If you do certain things like move the levies all from electricity to gas, or just remove them from electricity for people who have a heat pump installed, where is the funding coming from? Somebody’s got to fund the levies, so if they don’t go onto gas, where do they go? This is what we are considering along with how any changes can be most effectively implemented.”

The other options to make running costs more appealing include a heat pump tariff, which is already happening in Jersey and also in some parts of Europe. Any financial incentive could be an important driver for heat pumps. “That’s what we saw with Feed-in Tariffs  – incentives got to the point that they were so generous that it really did unlock widescale installation rates and solar is booming now without them. Incentives can prime a market and accelerate everybody’s familiarity and acceptance of that technology; we still need that for heat pumps. Moving the levies onto gas is a regressive policy and we are concerned as well about the impact that will have on fuel property, which is why we are focussing on a moderate, short term approach until electricity prices naturally fall.”

Back on the subject of target dates to ban gas and oil boilers, and catching up with Charlotte following the announcement, she says the biggest impact of Rishi Sunak’s delay is that it spreads uncertainty. She explains: “This sets a precedent for government to change any policy that hasn’t been put into legislation. I worry that will mean industry won’t react to future proposed policy ideas until they are firmly in legislation, because that’s the only way that they can guarantee the confidence. I also worry that those targets set a very clear message to installers, consumers, manufacturers and the supply chain. And while they are politically challenging, because who wants to tell their electorate what to do, they really set out the end goal that provided that investible opportunity. Are we just delaying the inevitable, which means we’re going to have to go harder faster later, and which government’s going to make that decision?”