Climate

Everything you need to know about heat pumps

Heat pumps could keep you and the climate cool.

A heat pump

A confluence of factors has brought heat pumps from the HVAC shadows into the mainstream over the past few years.

Photo: Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Images

Everyone from the president to the International Energy Agency to Google users simply cannot stop talking about heat pumps.

A confluence of factors has brought heat pumps from the HVAC shadows into the mainstream over the past few years. But things really came together for heat pumps this month when Biden signed off on using the Defense Production Act to spur more heat pump production. With the prospect of more heat pumps on shelves (or wherever heat pumps are stored), now’s as good a time as ever to understand the climate-protecting technology that just so happens to save people money and keep homes comfortable in all seasons.

What is a heat pump, and how does it work?

At its simplest, a heat pump moves heat from one place to another. The concept is relatively ancient history, dating back to 1852, though it took a while before heat pumps came into existence.

Today, there are two main flavors of heat pumps: air source and ground source. They work basically the same way, pumping or dumping heat from the air or ground. For the ground source version, a series of coils or a long pipe are installed underground and filled with antifreeze. The antifreeze circulates and draws on the ground’s constant temperature in the 50s. In the winter, that antifreeze is pushed through a compressor that turns it into a gas, a process that heats it up, before it’s piped over a fan that sends heat into a home while cooler air is drawn out. The system works in reverse in the summer. Neat!

Why are heat pumps good for the climate?

If you read the above explanation, you may have noticed one thing missing in the description of how heat pumps keep a house cozy in winter: fossil fuels. And that is why heat pumps are the stuff of climate dreams.

The Biden administration wants to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030. There are many avenues to do that, but decarbonizing buildings is a vital one. Buildings are responsible for 13% of American greenhouse gas pollution. While overall building emissions peaked in the mid-2000s, speeding up the decline is vital to protecting the climate.

Heat pumps have the potential to replace methane gas furnaces, which use a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide for fuel, as well as oil and wood-burning stoves. Getting a heat pump in every single-family home in the U.S. would shave at least 160 million metric tons of carbon pollution off the American balance sheet annually.

So what’s the holdup?

Supply chain woes have also come for the heat pump, sadly. But Biden invoking the Defense Production Act could help make them a bigger priority, opening things up a bit.

The up-front cost of a heat pump is also a challenge. Geothermal heat pumps can run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on the location. Air source ones are cheaper, and mini splits are cheaper still, though you’ll need one for each zone of your home so costs can add up.

That’s not to say investing in a heat pump is a bad idea; an analysis by Carbon Switch found that a heat pump would save the average household $557 per year on the utility bill. That analysis was done before the Russian war in Ukraine caused gas prices to skyrocket, so the savings could be even greater today.

They’re also not super great in really cold climates, though the Department of Energy has a program to try and fix that.

But there’s hope. A number of companies are attempting to help make heat pumps more accessible. Dandelion Energy, a startup that spun out of Google’s moonshot factory, is a one-stop shop for heat pump consultation and installation. BlocPower, another startup, is working on ensuring that heat pumps are accessible in low-income, multiunit buildings. (It’s also helping electrify the entire cities of Ithaca, New York and Menlo Park.) Gradient, meanwhile, is making window unit heat pumps for renters. That’s just the tip of the heat pump innovation iceberg.

What happens next?

The Defense Production Act alone isn’t going to spur heat pump mass adoption. Some states offer incentives already; New York, for example, has an array of incentives, including thousands of extra dollars in rebates for low-income homes. Getting more states — and utilities — on board with policies that help people prioritize installing heat pumps over their fossil-fueled counterparts is essential.

The federal government could also have a role to play. The Build Back Better Act included $6 billion for a program that would kick landlords and homeowners money for electrification retrofits, including heat pumps. Most of that money would be targeted at tribal and low-income communities, creating more heat pump justice. That’s particularly important since poor households spend four times more on their utility bills than wealthy ones due in part to inefficient appliances. The act would also boost what’s known as the 25C tax credit, a home efficiency upgrade incentive that currently maxes out at $500. Electrification think tank Rewiring America said those portions of the legislation that’s currently in Senate limbo are “critical to unlocking heat pump adoption.”

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins