Do heat pumps work in rural areas?

Many people assume that installing heat pumps will be particularly hard in rural areas, especially in detached, traditionally-built houses which lie off the gas grid. It seems UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak agrees. He recently pushed back the phase out date for oil, Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) and coal heating from 2026 to 2035, and suggested some homes may become exempt from the phase out date altogether.

But the experience of the last decade suggests otherwise. Rural areas – from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands – are leading the way on heat pumps, and now is not the time to slow them down.

Heat pumps are far more common in homes off the gas grid. Of the roughly 250,000 heat pumps recorded in the MCS data, four out of five are in an off-grid home. The league table of heat pump uptake in Britain is dominated by rural areas: Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, Cornwall, East Anglia and so on.

The map below shows how parliamentary constituencies differ in terms of the proportion of homes not connected to the gas grid and the proportion of homes with heat pump installations. The dark blue areas indicate parliamentary constituencies where there is both a high proportion of homes with installations and a high proportion of homes off the gas grid. All blue parliamentary constituencies are characterised by higher installations, and that they are mostly dark blue underscores that heat pump adoption tends to be higher in these more rural, off-grid places.

This trend also applies across Europe as a whole. Countries which have large gas grids covering most homes – such as the Netherlands and UK – typically have low rates of heat pump uptake. Countries with less extensive gas grids – such as in Scandinavia, Belgium and Poland – have generally seen much faster heat pump uptake, particularly in recent years.

Why are heat pumps so popular in areas with no mains gas?

Generally mains gas is a cheaper, cleaner and more convenient way of heating your home than oil, LPG or coal, which off-grid homes tend to use. That makes switching to a heat pump more attractive to households that don’t have access to mains gas.

Oil, the most common fuel in off-grid areas, has historically been more expensive than gas. Although this has shifted somewhat during the energy crisis (where gas and electricity prices increased by much more than oil), the long term trend is for oil to be an expensive way to heat homes (LPG is also typically more expensive). As a result, households normally enjoy lower energy bills when they switch from an oil or LPG boiler to a heat pump (although this is subject to market conditions).

Oil and LPG have other drawbacks. They require a large, unsightly tank in your garden. You need to get deliveries a few times a year to fill your tank – which is inconvenient and means you can run out. I’ve also heard stories of oil being stolen from tanks. Oil heating can also smell, and is more polluting than mains gas.

But what about the idea that heat pumps don’t work, or are too hard to install, in rural areas? Again, the evidence does not bear this out. In our survey of heat pump users, those whose previous heating system was oil are generally satisfied with their heat pumps (83%), and more satisfied than those who have switched to a heat pump from mains gas.

There’s an idea that older rural homes will need deep, sometimes unviable retrofits in order to be heat pump ready. Again, this doesn’t seem to be true. People who have a heat pump in older homes have similar levels of satisfaction as those in newer homes (see figure 15 here).

Heat pumps can work in any type of building (including churches and historic houses) as long as they are properly sized and installed. Insulation helps to reduce the heat demand of a property, but it saves money regardless of whether the home uses a boiler or a heat pump. The heat pump will be much more efficient than a boiler however well-insulated the home is.

It's possible that some high heat demand homes will require upgrades such as new radiators or pipe work. It’s also vital that heat pumps are properly designed and installed in such homes. But this is true for all homes that get a heat pump, and does not apply uniquely to rural or older homes.

None of this is to say that the transition to heat pumps is easy in rural, off-grid areas, but our view is it's actually a bit easier than in areas with a gas grid. Making sure electricity is as cheap as possible, providing financial support and, crucially, access to affordable financing should be a high priority for the government.

The truth is that rural areas lead the way on heat pumps, and there is no case for slowing down. Delaying the phase out of oil, LPG and coal heating will create uncertainty for many businesses that need the confidence to invest in heat pumps. Rural areas already form the backbone of Britain’s heat pump sector, and that is an opportunity we should build on, not walk away from.


Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

Deputy Director, sustainable future mission

Andrew is deputy director on Nesta's mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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