Applying a Behavioural Lens to Heat Pump Adoption

In Blog by Michael

7 May 2024

Michael Galley


Applying a Behavioural Lens to Heat Pump Adoption

Heat pumps are a heating and cooling technology that energy experts believe represent the future of decarbonised heating. However, UK households have been slow to switch from gas boilers to heat pumps; this blog considers the drivers and barriers to heat pump adoption from a behavioural science perspective, and offers recommendations to accelerate the transition. 

Heating and cooling homes accounts for approximately 14% of the UK’s total carbon emissions (Catapult Energy Systems, 2020). To achieve the Government’s Net Zero target by 2050, the way we heat our homes must radically change. One way to achieve this is with a mass transition by households from gas boilers to heat pumps. Currently, the UK has made very little progress towards this (the UK  has one of the lowest rates of heat pump adoption in Europe), as less than 1% of homes have installed a heat pump (Greenmatch, 2024). There are a range of factors that act as a barrier to heat pump adoption, which are outlined below. 

Heat pumps are expensive. Installing a heat pump typically costs £10,000 or more, which is considerably more expensive than a new boiler, even with a government grant of £7,500 (Greenmatch, 2024). Although the annual running costs are typically a few hundred pounds less, installing a heat pump is rarely seen as a cost-saving decision. For many households, the upfront cost is prohibitive, and for those who could theoretically afford a heat pump, they are put off by the opportunity cost of buying a heat pump as they would rather purchase something else, or save that money. This is exacerbated by present bias and our propensity to hyperbolically discount the future, which means we value money in the present over the future, and means we are less drawn to future savings that might arise from the lower running costs of a heat pump. 

Heat pumps are not easy to install. Most homes will require significant upgrades in order to install a heat pump (e.g. improving insulation, installing bigger radiators and underfloor heating, etc.) which demands extra time, effort, and cost, compared to a simple boiler replacement. This long installation time means that if people do not consider their heating system until their current boiler breaks, then their desire to recover their heating as quickly as possible will prevent them from switching to a heat pump. 

There is low awareness amongst consumers about heat pumps. The majority of the public are not familiar with heat pumps, or aware of the Government’s desire to see this technology adopted on a mass scale (UK ERC, 2024). 

Heat pumps are perceived as a novel technology. Because they are still rare in the UK and there is low awareness of them, they are perceived as being a new technology and this makes people hesitant to be the first to try them. 

Adopting a behavioural-led research approach can be helpful in designing and informing initiatives and policies aimed at promoting heat pumps.

Some of the barriers to heat pump adoption such as price and the effort required to install them call for financial, structural, or technological solutions. Behavioural science alone cannot solve the slow uptake of heat pumps in the UK. That said, applying a behavioural lens when designing solutions to convince consumers to install heat pumps ensures that financial products, information campaigns, and policies leverage behavioural insights to maximise their effectiveness. Behaviourally informed solutions that could help with heat pump adoption include: 

Offer financial products that reduce upfront costs and spread them over time. Given their price is such a significant barrier, offering consumers the largest grant possible will help make installing a heat pump a more financially attractive option. The government, or heat pump manufacturers, could (also) offer finance plans to spread the upfront costs over time. This would address people’s present bias which prevents them from wanting to part with (so much) money now. Finance plans essentially allow people to borrow from their future selves, whom, due to present bias, they are less worried about than their present selves. 

Utilise effective messengers and social proof to increase consumer awareness. Increasing consumer awareness of heat pumps is vital. This can be done through communication campaigns that educate and persuade people of their benefits. The government itself will play an important role; to ensure they are an effective messenger they should set an example by fitting heat pumps on government-owned buildings. 

Early adopters of heat pumps have the potential to be effective messengers, as they can convince people that they are satisfied with their decision to transition to a heat pump (which approximately 80% of them are). Therefore, initiatives like Nesta’s ‘Visit a Heatmpump’ which enables potential adopters to meet homeowners who have already installed a heat pump to learn more have the potential to be successful. Pointing to the high rates of heat pump adoption in similar countries could also help reduce the perception amongst the UK public that heat pumps are a new technology. 

Campaigns should leverage social norms to convey that installing a heat pump is a common decision. Given the low uptake in the UK so far, dynamic social norms - which refer to how a norm is changing (e.g. 20% more heat pumps were installed in the UK in 2023 compared to the year before) may be more appropriate for now (MCS Foundation, 2024). At the same time, because it is currently rare to own a heat pump in the UK, they can serve as a powerful green signal, allowing their owners to show off their pro-environmentalism. 

Target moments of change to propose installing heat pumps. Homeowners are more likely to consider installing a heat pump when they are in the process of moving houses, or upgrading their home. Therefore, it makes sense for builders and heat pump manufacturers to use this opportunity to persuade customers to install a heat pump.

Implement legislation to mark the future direction of heating. The government has already banned the installation of boilers in new-build homes from 2035, however there is room for them to go further with their policies. For example, they could announce a ban on installing boilers in all homes where heat pumps can be installed, which would deepen their legislative commitment to the phase out of gas boilers. In addition to the significant impact of this policy itself when (and if) it comes into force, introducing it would demonstrate a clear commitment by the government to heat pump adoption and signal to the public that the transition to heat pumps is underway. Policy commitments like this will also serve as a form of PR for heat pumps and complement efforts to increase awareness of heat pumps. 

Achieving a nationwide transition to heat pumps is fundamental to the Government’s Net Zero ambitions. Behavioural science can offer a valuable perspective on the barriers to adoption, and can be instrumental in designing maximally effective solutions. 

That being said, it is just one tool in a policymaker’s toolkit. Introducing legislation to ban the installation of gas boilers in the future will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the transition to heat pumps. Furthermore, technical improvements to make heat pumps cheaper, easier to install, and more efficient will be essential to their uptake. 

Our research in this area

Working with the International Energy Association, we have designed an online toolkit and a guidebook to help policymakers and energy suppliers consider behavioural insights as they attempt to change household energy consumption habits, promote the uptake of new technologies (including heat pumps), and improve participation in demand response programmes. Both resources draw on extensive research and case studies into behavioural barriers related to energy policy and are designed to be an intuitive resource for those working in this field.

If you would like to know more about applying behavioural insights to energy policy, or have ideas for us to work together in this area, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!