SNP's plans to force air source heat pumps on rural households deemed 'unfeasible' in letter by MSPs

Woman at SNP conference with a Scottish shield
The SNP's plans to force rural homeowners to install heat pumps has led to a letter from the former SNP cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing criticising the scheme, backed by MSPs, calling it 'unfeasible' (Image credit: Getty Images)

Rural homeowners in Scotland are facing significant challenges and expenses due to the government's push to mandate heat pump installations, according to a cross-party group of MSPs led by an SNP veteran.

In the letter, submitted by former SNP cabinet secretary Fergus Ewingthe, MSPs emphasised that installing air source heat pumps or other electric heating systems would be entirely "unfeasible" for many homes not connected to the gas grid. 

They stressed that the bills would be "exorbitantly" high, posing an economic challenge for rural homeowners, as well as highlighting the potential loss of heating during power outages caused by extreme weather in some of Scotland's coldest regions.

Fossil fuel reliant heating to be given low EPC scores

Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Green Party zero carbon buildings minister has set energy efficiency targets aiming for all homes to meet new standards by 2033.

Homes in Scotland currently account for almost a fifth of Scotland's carbon emissions, which has led to Harvie implementing reforms to the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating system, potentially preventing homeowners from selling their properties unless they carry out installing an air source heat pump by 2025.

The scheme would reward homes with heat pumps with the highest EPC scores for heating, while homes with gas boilers will be given the lowest scores.

The Scottish government previously announced that homes that do not gain a 'C' rating or above will not be allowed to be put up for sale from 2025.

Calls to 'urgently review these proposals'

A group of four MSPs, representing Scotland's most rural areas, is demanding an "urgent review" of the SNP-Green government's plan to decarbonise homes.

Former SNP government cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing has submitted a letter co-signed by Labour and Tory MSPs to Harvie, highlighting the potential adverse effects of this initiative on remote properties, particularly in the Highlands.

Ewing, a former rural economy secretary and the SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn, wrote: “By seeking to reform EPCs and forcing rural homeowners to rely on electrified heating alone from 2025, the Scottish Government is taking an approach to decarbonisation that will pose a serious risk to those living in remote areas.

“Not only does it threaten to burden off-grid property owners with overwhelming costs, but it also leaves them vulnerable to extreme-weather-induced power outages and disregards the realities of inefficient rural and islands’ electricity grids and infrastructure.”

Former SNP minister Fergus Ewing in Scottish Parliament

Former SNP cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing wrote in a letter to Patrick Harvie that forcing air source heat pump on rural homes leaves off-grid property owners "vulnerable to extreme-weather-induced power outages" (Image credit: Getty Images)

Douglas Lumsden, the Scottish Tory shadow energy minister, echoed these concerns, stating: “These current proposals are deeply unfair on Scotland’s rural communities. 

“If we are to reach net-zero, we need to do so in a way that is fair, affordable, and which offers choice to Scottish homeowners. Given the timescales involved, ministers must urgently review these proposals.”

Rhoda Grant, a Scottish Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, also criticised the Scottish Government's plans, claiming: “The decarbonisation of household heating plays a pivotal role in our journey towards achieving our Net Zero goal. However, it is crucial that we ensure a fair and just transition for those living in rural areas, providing them with the necessary support in this process. 

“Instead, the current approach from the Scottish Government appears to penalise those living off the gas grid, despite their existing disadvantages."

The letter proposes an alternative "mixed-technology approach," suggesting the use of renewable liquid gases alongside heat pumps to address the challenges faced by rural communities.

Converting homes to 'zero emissions' will cost £33bn

The feasibility of the scheme in terms of costs to households has been widely recognised The government's strategy document published in 2021 acknowledged that the average cost of installing a heat pump is around £10,000, four times the cost of a new fossil-fuel boiler.

The document further concedes that these zero emissions systems may lead to higher energy bills, stating that: "In some cases, zero emissions systems will cost more to run than the fossil-fuel systems they replace."

While the Scottish Government estimated the cost of converting all homes to "zero emissions" at £33 billion, it has provided an initial support package of only £1.8 billion towards air source heat pump costs.

Rural areas may be 'too cold' for heat pumps

Further challenges have been made towards the scheme with comments suggesting that some rural households in Scotland are unsuitable for heat pumps due to adverse weather conditions.

Labour peer Lord Willie Haughey criticised Patrick Harvie for his policy to target fossil fuel boilers and introduce heat pumps claiming some parts of Scotland may be "too cold" for heat pump systems to function efficiently, raising questions about their suitability for the Scottish climate.

However, Peter Chalmers from the Greener Energy Group, refuted these claims from Lord Haughey after stating, “heat pumps are suitable for the vast majority of properties”.

He added: “Lord Haughey was going on to say that heat pumps don’t work.

“His alternative was to install an electric boiler – which might be a cheaper alternative to heat pump to initially install, but the running costs would be three times more expensive than a gas boiler or a heat pump.

“And I don’t know many people that want to triple their energy bills right now.”

You can read on the topic of 'do heat pumps work in cold weather' in our expert guide.

Black air source heat pump outside unit next to house and snow covered path and garden

Peter Chalmers from the Greener Energy Group, refuted claims from Lord Haughey, claiming, “heat pumps are suitable for the vast majority of properties" (Image credit: Getty Images)

Proposal will be 'phased' to help transition, claims SNP spokesperson

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "All parties in Parliament backed our ambitious climate targets. To achieve them, emissions from heating our buildings need to reduce to zero by 2045 and all homes need to reach a good level of energy efficiency by 2033.

“So later this year we will consult on proposals that could inform a Heat in Buildings Bill, and the regulations that would follow. This will be done in a phased way to ensure that homeowners have a sufficient transition period."

The spokesperson acknowledged that many rural households have already taken steps in this direction, and cited examples from colder European countries like Norway and Finland with substantial rural populations that are ahead in this effort.

In recognition of the added expenses in rural areas, the government is offering an additional £1500 on top of the standard heating and energy efficiency grants of £7,500.

Additionally, to address the risk of power outages during extreme weather, regulations require the use of climate-friendly heating systems in new constructions and allow for direct emissions heating systems as emergency backups.

In a separate initiative, the government is currently gaining feedback on reforms to the factors determining a property's EPC rating.

Joseph Mullane
News Editor

News Editor Joseph has previously written for Today’s Media and Chambers & Partners, focusing on news for conveyancers and industry professionals.  Joseph has just started his own self build project, building his own home on his family’s farm with planning permission for a timber frame, three-bedroom house in a one-acre field. The foundation work has already begun and he hopes to have the home built in the next year. Prior to this he renovated his family's home as well as doing several DIY projects, including installing a shower, building sheds, and livestock fences and shelters for the farm’s animals. Outside of homebuilding, Joseph loves rugby and has written for Rugby World, the world’s largest rugby magazine.