EU F-gas review puts UK's heat pump rollout under pressure

NIBE S2125 Air Source Heat Pump
The EU is looking at introducing a tighter schedule to eliminate F gases, which are used in heat pumps (Image credit: NIBE Energy Systems)

Britain's heat pump rollout is under pressure as the EU considers a stricter crackdown on F-gas use.

F-gases include hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs), which is used as a refrigerant in heat pumps. It is also highly polluting to the atmosphere.

Existing EU legislation aims to cut F-gas usage to a third of the amount used in 2015 by 2030.

But the EU is reviewing this legislation, in favour of reducing this amount further in a bid to combat global warming. This could be as early as 2025.

We look at why if this were to go ahead in such a tight timeframe, this would be a problem for heat pump manufacturers and the UK's heat pump rollout.

What is HFC gas and why do heat pumps need it?

So how do heat pumps work? In very basic terms, heat pumps work like refrigerators but in reverse. That means, like refrigerators, heat pumps need refrigerants for the heat exchange process. Propane was used early on as a refrigerant but due to it being highly flammable, hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases were far more preferable for use instead.  

Unfortunately, despite being safer than propane gas, HFC gas is a fluorinated greenhouse gas (F-gas). F-gases are estimated to be hundreds of times more damaging than CO2. Just how damaging varies depending on the type of F gas. 

A common HFC used in heat pumps in the UK is R410a, which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 2088. Some have already switched to R32 (675GWP) and developments are being made in using CO2 as a refrigerant instead of HFCs too.

The solution so far has been to recycle HFC gases by cleaning them and reselling them but this isn't perfect as some of the gas can escape into the atmosphere during this process. HFC gases can escape into the atmosphere from leaks in heat pumps too, hence why HFC gases are sometimes needed when servicing the equipment.

The Daikin Altherma 3 H HT Heat Pump

The aim is to eventually get heat pumps using a far more environmentally friendly refrigerant (Image credit: Press Loft)

Why might there be a shortage of HFC gases?

The EU is discussing a change in the quota of HFC gases allowed to be used by industries in the next few years in its own bid to tackle global warming.

Originally, the EU quota was due to drop to a third of HFC use in 2015 by 2024. And by 2030 this quota was to be 20% of 2015 levels.

But the EU is talking about revising this figure to slash the quota to only 5% of 2015's HFC use by either 2025 or 2030.

A decision on this is expected to be announced late next year, with the quotas being in place from 2024.

Also, this year's long hot summer with several heatwaves across Europe, is likely to result in increased demand for air conditioning units. These also use HFCs, which puts even more pressure on supplies.

How could this impact the UK's heat pump rollout?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is committed to a 600,000 per year heat pump rollout in the UK by 2028.

Several factors have already thrown that figure into doubt, including a shortage of qualified installers as well as poor uptake of the Government's £450million boiler upgrade scheme.

But if there is a shortage of refrigerants this could drive up the price and put pressure on manufacturers.

Graham Wright, former chairman of the Heat Pump Association, explained the situation to Homebuilding & Renovating in more detail.

He said the main worry is if EU officials chose a timescale of 2025 for their stricter HFC gas quota. This would not give heat pump manufacturers enough time to adopt new refrigerants in their systems.

"It isn't straight forward to swap out a gas with a different refrigerant," he said. "The heat pump industry is renowned for being innovative but it still takes time. There's a balance that needs to take place."

However, he said he believes it is unlikely the EU would force such strict timescales on manufactures and is more likely to opt for the later 2030 date.

Realistically, heat pump manufacturers need between five and seven years to adopt far lower polluting refrigerants, he added.

Heat pump on grass lawn as part of home eco heating systems

The UK Government wants to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Will the UK follow EU quotas on refrigerants?

Previously, the UK has said it would incorporate the EU's F gas legislation into its laws. However, this was before EU discussions about significantly reducing the quota of refrigerants started to take place.

While climate campaigners have urged the UK to follow the EU's quotas, the UK is likely to develop its own.

Graham Wright, former chairman of the Heat Pump Association, said there are already discussions in place for creating the UK's own F gas quotas, which would be separate to the EU's regulation.

Currently the quota is not set in stone, but is loosely agreed in the UK to be 11% of the HFC use in 2015. 

The aim, he adds, is to get heat pump manufacturers eventually using refrigerants with only 150 Global Warming Potential (GWP), or under. There is currently no target date that has been set for that in the UK but it will be agreed in the future.

There are global suppliers of the UK's refrigerants, so aside from EU legislation pushing up the price, the UK could feasibly adopt its own refrigerant regulations.

Amy Willis

Amy spent over a decade in London editing and writing for The Daily Telegraph, MailOnline, and Metro.co.uk before moving to East Anglia where she began renovating a period property in rural Suffolk. During this time she also did some TV work at ITV Anglia and CBS as well as freelancing for Yahoo, AOL, ESPN and The Mirror. When the pandemic hit she switched to full-time building work on her renovation and spent nearly two years focusing solely on that. She's taken a hands-on DIY approach to the project, knocking down walls, restoring oak beams and laying slabs with the help of family members to save costs. She has largely focused on using natural materials, such as limestone, oak and sisal carpet, to put character back into the property that was largely removed during the eighties. The project has extended into the garden too, with the cottage's exterior completely re-landscaped with a digger and a new driveway added. She has dealt with de-listing a property as well as handling land disputes and conveyancing administration.