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Heat pump installation to offset Covid unemployment, according to BESA

Meeting the government’s new carbon emissions target will need an unprecedented surge in training and recruitment across the building services sector, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The new target of a 78% cut in emissions by 2035 (compared with 1990 levels) announced by Boris Johnson on Earth Day will depend on a huge contribution from the built environment, which is responsible for more than 40% of total UK emissions, the Association said.

Heating buildings alone causes up to 31% of emissions and there will need to be a rapid scaling up of recruitment into the industry to take on the challenge of decarbonising heat over the next two to five years, a webinar hosted by BESA heard.

The campaign group Green New Deal UK believes that the 813,000 jobs lost during the pandemic could be quickly offset by a growth in ‘green’ jobs with targeted investment. It said there could be a net gain of around 240,000 over a two-year period and 720,000 over the next 10 years if both the private and public sectors invest heavily in recruitment and training.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) believes the industry’s workforce will have to grow by 800,000 people by 2050 to achieve net zero emissions and this will include at least 70,000 new heat pump installers by 2030, according to the Heat Pump Association (HPA).

“We already had a steep hill to climb, and the Prime Minister just made it steeper,” said BESA’s director of training and skills Helen Yeulet. “There are not enough people working in the low carbon sector, but there is now a huge opportunity to get people into our industry who are going to be out of work – particularly after end of the furlough scheme.”

However, she told the BESA webinar that the industry needed to make itself more attractive to a younger age group and demonstrate that a career in building services engineering was an opportunity to “make a difference”.

“We need to educate people about the role our industry will play in net zero. It is much bigger than a lot of them realise. We need to be proud of that, shout about it and get young people interested,” said Ms Yeulet.

Heat pumps are seen as a particularly appealing opportunity because the government has made it a pivotal technology for the switch to low carbon heating as gas boilers are phased out. However, lack of understanding among both consumers and installers could hold back their success, according to BESA.

It has developed a training course, which is being delivered by its online Academy, in partnership with the manufacturer Worcester Bosch. This accentuates the importance of approaching a heat pump installation as part of a wider whole building solution that includes addressing any problems with the building’s fabric, ensuring the consumer understands how to operate the system, and making sure it is properly controlled.

The course is free to anyone who can complete it by the end of May. After that a charge will be made, but BESA members will receive a discount.

Worcester Bosch national training manager Ewan Sutherland told the BESA webinar that earlier attempts at heat pump training had fallen short because they did not approach the installation “as a complete system”.

As a result, many heat pumps did not deliver the cost and carbon savings they promised. “Sausage factory” courses with zero failure rates also churned out only semi-trained installers with poor understanding. However, he said these historic problems were being addressed by the new approach through the BESA Academy.

“There is a lot of interest from installers wanting to improve their knowledge…but some are worried about specification as they want to make sure this is done properly. There’s a lot of work to be done on skills to be ready for the 2025 deadline for new build [when no new gas boilers will be allowed]. We can be ready if we start now,” said Sutherland.

BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox said heat pumps were the only low carbon choice available to many households.

“All-electric heating is expensive, and many homes are not suited for any other alternative to gas boilers, so this is a no-brainer. The new target is being embedded in legislation, which makes it different to some of the stop-start policy stuff of the past.”

However, installers will need to improve their understanding of how the technology works so they are better able to advise consumers, he said. “It is important to explain that the system needs to run at a lower temperature for longer periods and is supported by proper insulation and controls including weather compensation. This is harder to achieve in older properties.”

Retrofitting heat pumps in cities can also be problematic due to the proximity of surrounding buildings so Fox believes there will be a bigger future for heat networks in many urban areas.

Sutherland added that local grids were inadequate for the size of the heat pump market envisioned and that hydrogen would also play a big part in inner cities.  “Heat pumps are not the full answer, we need to go down a diversified technology route to achieve net zero,” he said.

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