Climate

There’s never been a better time for a heat pump revolution

Heat pumps are quickly emerging as the HVAC technology of the future. We just need more of them.

An aerial view of houses packed close together.

It's time for heat pumps.

Photo: Breno Assis/Unsplash

Scorching temperatures have blanketed the U.S. Searing heat has hit Europe, too, with a ferocity unseen in recorded history for this time of year. And summer? It’s just getting started.

Climate change is making extreme heat more likely and intense. And the air conditioners we use to stay cool are making matters worse. As more locations turn to air conditioning, a novel solution is springing up that could keep things cool in summer and warm in winter — and not ravage the climate. Heat pumps are gaining increasing traction in the public consciousness, and policymakers are starting to get the memo, too.

The drumbeat for heat pumps started in earnest last year, after the Pacific Northwest roasted through a heat wave that was dubbed a “mass casualty event.” The stifling heat hit a region where many people don’t have air conditioning at all due to relatively mild summers. Heat pumps are able to do double duty by both heating and cooling, making them a good fit for a region that can be rather, shall we say, inclement in the winter.

But the profile of heat pumps has risen even further in the wake of the Russian war against Ukraine. Climate author and activist Bill McKibben first raised the idea of #heatpumpsforpeace as a way to help Europe and the U.S. lower demand for Russian gas this coming winter. And President Joe Biden used the Defense Production Act earlier this month to kick heat pump manufacturing into overdrive.

“Reducing America’s dependence on gas and oil is critical to U.S. national security,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said at the time of the announcement.

Heat pumps come in two main flavors: air and ground source. They work using roughly the same principle, though: by either pumping or dumping heat from your home. (“This Old House” has a great explainer.) This all happens without the use of fossil fuels, making heat pumps a key tool in the fight to decarbonize the world.

Air conditioners work the same way, so heat pumps aren’t a huge source of energy and carbon savings in the summer. But where they shine is the winter, which is when people usually fire up gas-powered furnaces or wood- and oil-burning ones that are even bigger polluters. A report by home energy research firm Carbon Switch estimates that switching U.S. single-family homes to heat pumps could save 142 million metric tons of carbon each year.

The Defense Production Act could help start that transition. One particularly effective avenue might be guaranteeing sales, according to Carbon Switch founder Michael Thomas. That would be akin to Big Tech’s recent $925 million carbon dioxide removal commitment, but with the muscle of the federal government behind it and climate-saving technology that already exists.

That could also help bring costs down for individuals looking to chuck a heat pump in their basement or outside their home, which would be a huge boon. Carbon Switch’s research shows that heat pumps would save the average home $557 per year, but they do require a rather a bit more of an upfront investment compared to furnaces or air conditioning. A bill introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar last month called the HEATR Act would make heat pumps even more affordable by offering up to $1,000 in tax credits.

Despite the clear appeal of heat pumps as the world tries to electrify everything and reduce carbon pollution, hurdles still remain. For one, the Biden administration will need Congress to kick in more money for the Defense Production Act, which has been invoked for everything from solar panels to baby formula in recent months. Without money, the proclamation is largely symbolic. Congress also needs to actually pass the HEATR Act for any of those benefits to make it to heat pump-curious homeowners.

Then there are the supply chain woes affecting seemingly everything, including heat pump parts. Thomas said he’s heard from numerous installers that they have a record number of orders and a shortage of parts to fulfill said orders. Clearing up that bottleneck will be crucial to speeding up deployment.

There’s a weird paradox we’ll also have to overcome with heat pumps. They run on electricity rather than fossil fuels. That’s decidedly a good thing for the climate, but the grid will also have to evolve in tandem to ensure we have enough carbon-free electricity to keep the lights, heat pumps and more on.

“The solution … isn't to keep using fossil fuel heating. It's to build more renewables and capacity,” Thomas said. “That's why it's so important that we increase the production of renewables and do everything we can to get around NIMBYs and utility lobbying, all this stuff that's really holding the grid back.”

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