Climate Crisis Gets Help From Millions Of Tiny Little Heat Pumps

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Just in time for President Biden to unleash a torrent of new climate crisis orders, the Energy Department is out with a new roadmap for achieving a carbon neutral United States by 2050 — and it’s not much of a stretch, either. The naysayers are already whining about the cost, but if you buy takeout coffee every day you practically won’t notice a thing. Decarbonizing the energy and industrial sectors would cost about $1.00 per person per day, according to the research.

climate crisis USA net zero
The humble little heat pump has a big role to play in the net zero USA of the sparkling green future (image via Berkeley Lab).

Climate Crisis: It’s All About The Infrastructure

To be clear, an extra $1.00 a day is a bite for people who are already on a tight budget, but surely those who have plenty of greenbacks to spare would want to chip in a little extra to help save the whole entire planet from catastrophe. Right? Anybody?

Oh well, we’ll leave that to the policy makers over there in Congress, who are getting quite a nudge in the climate action direction from the Biden administration. In the meantime, let’s take a look at that new Energy Department report. It was produced by a team of researchers over at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the title, “Carbon Neutral Pathways for the United States.” You can find it in the journal AGU Advances if you want to read the whole thing for yourself.

The analysis does factor in natural gas over the short run, but there’s not much room for fossil energy moving forward.

Nuclear fans may also be somewhat disappointed because the report is based on a 10-year scenario. That’s barely enough time to even start thinking about revving up a whole new fleet of nuclear power plants to fight the climate crisis, let alone start building them (at least not in the US, anyways).

Also of interest is the emphasis on infrastructure. The report does not lean on the vagaries of human behavior to solve the climate crisis. People will believe what they want to believe, but you’re not cooking with gas on an electric stove. So, the Berkeley Lab analysis is all about the infrastructure.

Berkeley Lab senior scientist Margaret Torn leaves no doubt about that. One of the lead authors of the study, Torn explains that “the decarbonization of the U.S. energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation.”

“It means that by 2050 we need to build many gigawatts of wind and solar power plants, new transmission lines, a fleet of electric cars and light trucks, millions of heat pumps to replace conventional furnaces and water heaters, and more energy-efficient buildings — while continuing to research and innovate new technologies,” she adds.

Tiny Little Heat Pumps To The Rescue

If you caught that thing about millions of heat pumps, that is a dagger to the heart of natural gas stakeholders. The idea is to solve the climate crisis one building at a time, by cutting the gas line (or the oil tank, as the case may be).

The trickiest part is how to handle heating and/or air conditioning without fossil fuels, and that’s where heat pumps come in. Instead of using gas or oil, heat pumps deploy electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space. That’s news to some of us, but heat pumps are already a thing in parts of the US and elsewhere in the world.

Heat pumps play a key role in the building electrification movement. The movement has been gathering steam under the radar for the past couple of years, and it has been flexing its muscles of late.

Last summer, for example, the proposed Atlantic Coast gas pipeline bit the dust after a hard-fought battle by environmental advocates and local stakeholders in Virginia and North Carolina. In addition to land use issues, the availability of renewable energy and heat pump technology may have helped to tip the balance.

Meanwhile, up in Massachusetts the advent of offshore wind power is breathing life into the state’s plan for strategic electrification, which leans heavily on heat pumps.

Some jurisdictions are placing bans on new natural gas hookups. In 2019, for example, the City of Berkeley, California — yes, that’s the hometown of Berkeley Lab — imposed a ban on new natural gas hookups, and others are following.

Electrification Nation Vs. The Climate Crisis

As for a national climate crisis strategy, the Berkeley Lab report charts a cautious approach that is designed to achieve the maximum impact while ruffling the least feathers, at least from a consumer point of view. The basic idea is to use end-of-life opportunities to bang out a steady drumbeat of decarbonization improvements, in addition to eliminating coal from the power generation portfolio.

“No one is asking consumers to switch out their brand-new car for an electric vehicle,” Torn explains. “The point is that efficient, low-carbon technologies need to be used when it comes time to replace the current equipment.”

The report does cover a 100% renewable energy scenario, but the research team zeroes in on a 90% scenario on a cost basis.

We Have Only Just Begun To Fight

The good news is that the foundational technologies to achieve rapid penetration in the replacement market are already in hand, including wind and solar power, electric vehicles, and energy storage as well as heat pumps.

The even gooder news is that the new report erred on the side of caution in its cost model. The team almost exclusively relied on capital costs related to new infrastructure, and they did not include the economic and climate benefits in their analysis. Factor those elements in, and the cost benefits of a national climate crisis strategy come into sharper focus.

“The cost figures would be lower still if they included the economic and climate benefits of decarbonizing our energy systems. For example, less reliance on oil will mean less money spent on oil and less economic uncertainty due to oil price fluctuations,” Berkeley Lab explains. “Climate benefits include the avoided impacts of climate change, such as extreme droughts and hurricanes, avoided air and water pollution from fossil fuel combustion, and improved public health.”

Solving The Climate Crisis, One Farm At A Time

But wait, there’s more. The new report also lays out an affordable scenario for net negative industrial and energy systems “to the tune of 500 metric tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year.”

That scenario leans heavily on biofuels and electric fuels, which could give rise to some land use and transmission hurdles.

It also leans on carbon capture in the form of uptake by land, which would require widespread alterations in agriculture and forest management.

Do tell! Regenerative agriculture is already a thing, and interest in the solar-plus-agriculture field (aka agrivoltaics) is exploding due to the benefits for soil health.

We’re guessing that the Department of Defense’s new net-negative challenge will also involve land and forest management practices that sequester more carbon. The agency is already keen on habitat preservation as a means of forestalling encroachment on key facilities and training grounds, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image: Decarbonization roadmap via Berkeley Lab.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3137 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey