What heat pumps can learn from the gas transition

Peter Apps

Peter Apps on the history of energy transition in the UK and what we can learn from previous successes.

Anyone who has looked into the UK’s path to net zero will know that heating our homes is a big problem. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has called domestic heating “perhaps the greatest challenge of all the sector transitions” – and it is easy to see why.

There are an estimated 23m gas boilers in the UK, and we are adding more every day.

We have 27 years to transfer all of them to a non-fossil fuel source, but are currently making sluggish progress.

There were 59,000 heat pump installations in 2022, which sounds impressive until you remember we need to get to 600,000 a year within five years to meet the government’s baseline target.

Is this challenge just impossible? Is transferring the fuel we use to heat our homes within a few decades a challenge that is just too big to be achieved?

Not if we look to history. The heating transition which we are currently attempting in the UK is by no means our first.

The history of gas

As long as humans have built homes in this country, have they burned fuels to heat them. We transitioned from burning wood to burning mostly coal and oil as wood became more scarce and expensive in the 19th Century.

In the 1960s we began to use ‘town gas’ – produced from coal at a gas works and pumped into homes via the giant cylindrical gasholders which are still a derelict staple of many urban environments. These were initially used for cooking, and a small amount of heating.

But following the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the North Sea in 1965 we went through a rapid, centrally-planned transition which saw us convert 13m homes to gas central heating by 1977.

This achievement – a rapid, deliberate switch to a new technology which required new infrastructure and significant adaptations to millions of individual homes – is not far from our current predicament. So what can we learn from the past about how we should approach the future?

“There are lessons from all other historical transitions that can help us work out what to do today,” says Professor Simone Abram from the University of Durham, who has published papers on energy transitions. “Apart from anything else, we can see what’s different about the current situation that we find ourselves in.”

The transition to gas central heating was made possible by the discovery of natural gas reserves in the North Sea, but also an important technological breakthrough: small bore pipes and pumps that could function in small houses.

“Prior to the invention of small-bore pumps, central heating was only available to the rich or the very comfortably off,” says Professor Abram.

Natural gas

The move to natural gas was complex: town gas networks were converted to run on natural gas and more homes connected to the grid. Then the local town systems were connected to a national system to move gas around the country.

“All those things happening together meant that you could onshore gas at a terminal from the North Sea, put it into a gas transmission pipe and it would just end up at someone’s house by that system,” says Dr Richard Lowes, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project. “So it went from being decentralised local gas to being a real national system very rapidly.”

Because of its success, it is forgotten how large a challenge and how successful an operation this was. In a paper on the topic, published in 2015, Dr Clare Hanmer, from the Energy Institute at University College London, recalls speaking to two retired gas industry professionals who described the “the military atmosphere” of the job which one of them referred to as “the biggest exercise since D Day”.

In post-war Britain, this wasn’t a joke: many of the managers were former army officers.

And as the military analogy implied, this was something which was centrally-planned and run by the state, which brought the entire infrastructure under its control.

Scale of transition

“I have always felt like we don’t talk about [the prior transition] very much because it doesn’t suit the narrative of the incumbent industry,” says Dr Lowes. “That transition involved basically the nationalisation of the entire gas and heating system. The networks were publicly owned, the gas production was publicly owned, the supply was publicly owned and even the appliance manufacturers were publicly owned.

“British Gas was this massive public entity, which did everything and which was owned by the government. And it was set up like that because of the recognised scale of the transition,” he adds.

The power of the state in the post-war era was simply bigger than we would expect these days. For example, homes could be connected to the network without the resident’s permission while they were out. In her paper, Dr Hanmer reports on the experience of an apprentice fitter who “climbed in through the open window of an unoccupied property to let in his colleagues, while a policeman stood by”. One wonders what the Daily Telegraph would make of this being done for heat pumps in the modern era.

But as well as just being nationalised, it was also well planned and well executed. It was based on long-term planning, centralised purchasing of equipment and hiring and training a new workforce.

“There was an organised body that was offering the skills training. That enabled people to find new niches, a new generation of engineers with different skills and that’s something that is missing today,” says Professor Abram.

The transition was ultimately a huge success of central planning – described as “a major technical triumph, but also a managerial one” in a major report written in 1980.

Nationalised industry also took away one of the key stumbling blocks we face today: the cost to the individual consumer fell on the state.

“Nobody had to pay for their gas appliances to be converted from town gas to natural gas – the cost was borne by the nationalised industry,” explains Dr Hanmer.

The new way of doing things was also a fairly easy sell as a lifestyle improvement.

“I think once it [gas central heating] became feasible and affordable, it was just much less messy than hauling coal around,” says Professor Abram. “If you’re a housewife who has to keep the coal fires going, obviously it would be easier to just switch on the gas.”

This is not to say that there wasn’t pushback. “There were concerns over safety, over explosions, there were concerns that people couldn’t cook very well on gas,” says Dr Lowes.

National campaign

This led to a national programme of marketing. “There was this national programme of PR and comms, basically selling gas to the general public,” adds Dr Lowes. “So there were gas showrooms, where you could go and have a look at a cooker or a boiler and there were road shows where people would come and do things like ‘cooking on gas’ exhibitions.”

This sort of thing is “exactly the sort of stuff that should be going on at the moment” to persuade people of the value of heat pumps and induction stoves, he adds.

Professor Abram says a further lesson is that applying the sort of careful planning that was involved in the transition to gas then, we could look beyond individual heat pumps to district-wide heat networks.  “They’re more efficient because they use existing resources, and you can use things like underground water or underground heat that for an individual house is not really practical or affordable,” she says.

These are good lessons to take from the past but the bigger one – that the success of the prior transition hinged on massive, centralised state power may be harder for modern politicians to learn.