Heat Pumps: A Catalyst for Widespread Decarbonization

In California, a state-wide decarbonization policy focus has set the stage for transitioning our economy away from natural gas. Many may be surprised by a powerhouse solution that’s cost-competitive and readily available today. Meet the heat pump!

Now you’ve got my attention!

High School Flames

Do you remember the exciting Bunsen-burner days of high school chemistry class? As a teenager, any opportunity for an open flame in the classroom always captured my full attention! You may recall your teacher often felt obliged to turn on a ventilation hood or open a window during class. For good reason!

Scientists are now discovering the dangers of combusting fossil fuels not only for our atmosphere but for humans inside our homes and businesses. A recent Harvard study finds fossil fuel combustion causes 350,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S. alone! Researchers also found that children in homes with natural gas stoves have a 42% increased risk of developing asthma. That means the climate crisis is also a human health crisis.

In response to the growing body of science, California energy officials are exploring solutions to support our climate goals and protect citizens from the harmful impacts of fossil fuel pollutants. This “two birds, one stone” approach culminates in an economy-wide transition away from natural gas use in our buildings, part of the catchy “Electrify Everything” movement. (See my previous post for the full scoop).

Is This Where We Get Flying Electric Cars?

You may be wondering which futuristic technologies we must develop before we’re ready to attempt a transition to all-electric buildings. Nuclear reactors in every home? A hydrogen economy? Pipelines filled with renewable natural gas?

Those technologies could be part of our solution, but they’re not ready for mass adoption today. What if I told you about a market-ready carbon-free technology that can heat your air and water, save you dinero, and can make your home and communities safer?

I’d like to make a virtual introduction – Meet the heat pump! If you’re disappointed, don’t be fooled! While often overshadowed by technologies with sexier headlines (ahem, Plug Power), heat pumps are the worker bees of zero-carbon built environment. Let’s explore why.

Heating Up

Heat pumps have been around for decades. Many Californians already use heat pumps to heat and cool air in their homes and businesses. The problem is, much more of us rely on natural gas to reach the same end. Nationwide, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) tells us 58 percent of households heat their homes with natural gas.

To clean energy nerds, natural gas appliances are like driving a dirty, inefficient gas-powered car when cleaner, safer, and more efficient electric options exist. (Don’t get me started!)

A growing body of research indicates that heat pumps can save residents and businesses money in operating costs, reduce fossil fuel pollution, support climate action goals, and save human lives. So how does it work?

What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?

Heat pumps work like your refrigerator. It captures heat from places you don’t want it (like inside your fridge), and moves it somewhere else.

Heat pumps work similarly to refrigerators, moving heat from one place to another. (Source: Science ABC)

The absence of heat is “coldness”, allowing your fridge to keep those mountains blue and the spinach fresh. Have you noticed the area behind your fridge is usually warmer than the rest of the room? That heat just got kicked out of your fridge.

Heat pumps cool our homes and businesses by treating our indoor space as a giant refrigerator, capturing heat from the inside, and pumping it outside. Hence the name “heat pump”. See what happens when you let engineers name things?

One differentiator, and primary benefit over air conditioning systems, is that heat pumps can operate in reverse to provide heating – no combustion required. So instead of relying on separate equipment to heat and cool our buildings (furnace and air conditioner), heat pumps do both using the same equipment!

Ok, but what about really cold weather?

Baby, it’s Cold Outside

One of the biggest myths encumbering heat pumps is their inability to operate efficiently in cold climates. Thanks to technological advances and the cold-climate heat pump, heat pumps can serve every climate zone across the state of California. (Maine is so bullish on heat pumps that they want them to heat 50 percent of their buildings by 2030.)

Efficiency, Please!

From New England to California, heat pumps are wicked efficient (said in a Ben Affleck accent). While the best natural gas furnaces and water heaters can reach efficiencies approaching 99 percent, heat pumps can clock in at up to 500 percent! This is because of magic, or the vapor compression cycle, depending on your relationship with science.

Engineers rate heat pumps using what’s called a coefficient of performance, or COP. Who let the engineers name more things?

That is, for every unit of energy provided to a heat pump, it returns 3, 4, or up to 5 times the amount in energy output. It’s like creating free energy! These riveting returns help customers reduce the amount of heating fuel required. And, unlike natural gas furnaces, electric heat pumps generate zero local emissions, protecting the health of humans and the atmosphere.

As the electric grid becomes ever cleaner, these points underline why regulators, customers, advocacy groups, and the general public are so keen on heat pumps. We have a lot of work to do to decarbonize the economy, but the point is clear: Low-cost, feasible, carbon-whacking technology exists today. Implementation a matter of policy and application.

Next Steps – What Can I Do?

If you’re interested in supporting decarbonization in your community, it’s time to get pumped about heat pumps! And you don’t have to wait for your old furnace to break down before replacing it with a super-efficient, gas-free model.

To learn more, check out your local utility or load-serving entity’s website for rebates on heat pumps in your area. You can also explore the benefits of heat pumps related to human health on the Building Decarbonization Coalition website.

More Posts: Learn more about Building Electrification.

About Solutions in Sustainability

Solutions in Sustainability advises businesses on tackling the “E” in ESG by clients take inventory of scope 1, 2, and 3 energy-related emissions. We are clean energy experts who help clients develop and implement strategies to reduce corporate GHG emissions over time. Contact Solutions in Sustainability to learn about the options today.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at alex@alexkaufmanpe.com.

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