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The heat pump finally takes a turn in the climate action spotlight. Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.


All Hail The Mighty Heat Pump, Hero Of The American Jobs Plan

The American Jobs Act showers the heat pump with climate action love, as part of push for building electrification.

Buried deep within President Joe Biden’s massive new American Jobs Plan is a mention of the heat pump, which hasn’t gotten much traction, probably because, well, heat pumps look kind of dumpy compared to EVs and other cool new clean tech. Nevertheless, as envisioned by the American Jobs Plan, it is the door that opens the door to the zero emission home of the future, because it can eliminate oil and gas from household use. With that in hand, millions of Americans are transformed into climate warriors whether they drive an electric vehicle or not.

The American Jobs Plan Is A Building Electrification Plan

When The American Jobs Plan talks about upgrading buildings, it doesn’t mean replacing your dirty old oil heater with a new gas heater, or your old gas appliances with more efficient gas appliances. What it really means is ditching fossil energy altogether and switching to electricity.

All-electric homes are common in some parts of the US, but in many places oil and gas are the go-to energy sources for heating and cooling systems as well as hot water heaters, and various kitchen and laundry appliances.

That’s where heat pumps come in. Despite the “heat” in their names, heat pumps can provide both heating and cooling. The principle is like that of a refrigerator, only they work in both directions.

Heat pumps are also highly efficient compared to other heating and cooling systems. Here, let’s have the Energy Department explain:

“Because they move heat rather than generate heat, heat pumps can provide equivalent space conditioning at as little as one quarter of the cost of operating conventional heating or cooling appliances.”

Thanks, Energy Department.

Aside from the potential to boot oil and gas out of the household market, heat pumps can also save energy by replacing less efficient electricity-based systems. For example, the Energy Department estimates that heat pump water heaters are “two to three times more energy efficient than conventional electric resistance water heaters.”

‘Twas The Heat Pump Killed The Beast

The potential for heat pumps to push oil and gas out of the home energy market was on display last summer, when the leading utilities Dominion and Duke canceled plans for the much maligned Atlantic Coast gas pipeline. Heat pumps were not the only factor in the decision, but they mostly likely factored into it because both Dominion and Duke smell greenbacks in the heat pump waters. Both utilities are dropping many clamshells on renewable energy projects, and heat pumps provide them with a new market for all those clean kilowatts.

To stir up the market, Duke pitches heat pump upgrades as part of its “Smart $saver” appliance rebate program it offers its customers in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Ohio, and Dominion is also pursuing the heat pump market.

Other factors in the pipeline decision included intense blowback from environmental organizations and local stakeholders in North Carolina. A looming regional gas glut may have also dimmed the allure of a new pipeline for Duke and Dominion.

Maybe so, but as of last November Dominion was putting the final touches on a a deal to sell off practically all of its gas transmission and storage assets, so there’s that.

To Meet 2050 Net Zero Goal, American Jobs Plan Zeroes In On Heat Pumps

To put the significance of the heat pump in context, take a look at the White House press release for the American Jobs Plan. It’s right at the top — oh wait, scroll to the 40th paragraph, which describes the plan for building and retrofitting more than two million homes and commercial buildings. It’s somewhere in there, so keep going for another 20 paragraphs until you reach the part about new technologies and ARPA-C.

Oh wait, never mind. Heat pumps didn’t make in that section, though it does mention “utility-scale energy storage, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, advanced nuclear, rare earth element separations, floating offshore wind, biofuel/bioproducts, quantum computing, and electric vehicles” as the focus of a new $15 billion investment in advanced clean tech R&D.

Keep going another five paragraphs or so and you’ll finally come to heat pumps, under the heading, Jumpstart clean energy manufacturing through federal procurement. Here’s the money quote (emphasis added):

“To meet the President’s goals of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, the United States will need more electric vehicles, charging ports, and electric heat pumps for residential heating and commercial buildings. The President is calling on Congress to enable the manufacture of those cars, ports, pumps, and clean materials, as well as critical technologies like advanced nuclear reactors and fuel, here at home through a $46 billion investment in federal buying power, creating good-paying jobs and reinvigorating local economies, especially in rural areas.”

What Is This ARPA-C Of Which You Speak?

So it took a while, but yes, the press release for the American Jobs Plan places heat pumps right alongside electric vehicles and their charging stations as leading technologies in the race to meet the 2050 net zero goal.

The White House also put out a fact sheet for the Plan that does the same thing of burying heat pumps all the way down at the bottom, but placing them in the same pantheon as electric vehicles and EV chargers.

“The President is calling on Congress to enable the manufacture of those cars, ports, pumps, and clean materials, as well as critical technologies like advanced nuclear reactors and fuel, here at home through a $46 billion investment in federal buying power, creating good-paying jobs and reinvigorating local economies, especially in rural areas,” says the Fact Sheet.

They left out “heat” but everybody knows what they meant.

Wait, what About ARPA-C?

If you’re wondering how ARPA-C fits into all this, that’s a good question. ARPA-C stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency – Climate. It is modeled on the Energy Department’s ARPA-Energy office, which provides funding for transformative energy-related projects that private sector investors are too skittish to support, and ARPA-E is modeled on the Department of Defense’s DARPA office, which gave us the Internet, so there’s that.

The creation of ARPA-C was part of President Biden’s campaign platform, so it doesn’t exist yet, but when it does, it looks like pumps could be part of its portfolio.

Last February, the White House announced formal steps toward creating ARPA-C and proposed a portfolio that includes heat pumps right alongside energy storage, carbon-free hydrogen (aka green hydrogen), zero-carbon vehicles, sustainable fuels and the like.

Bringing costs down and ditching Earth-warming refrigerants are two key challenges for next-generation heat pumps.

Critics (you know who you are) have been wondering why create ARPA-C when ARPA-E could do the job. ARPA-E actually does have some heat pump projects already in hand, but it also provides a good illustration of why a climate-focused funding office is useful.

ARPA-E casts a wide net in terms of transformative technology. Its heat pump projects are all over the map in terms of use cases, including grid-scale energy storage, cement manufacturing carbon capture, and even electric vehicles. Other offices at the Energy Department are more involved in the pumps for buildings field.

An ARPA-C program could focus like a laser on heat pumps for buildings. If ARPA-C isn’t interested, there’s always the National Science Foundation. NSF is getting a lot of love from the American Jobs Plan and they have demonstrated a recent interest in heat pumps.

In 2019, NSF awarded funding to a startup called Darcy Solutions for its water-based geothermal pump, with the aim of driving down the cost of geothermal technology. Apparently all that hard work is beginning to pay off for the company, which began life as part of a group of 19 startups launched by the University of Minnesota.

A more recent development took place last month, when the Energy Department launched something called the CABLE manufacturing prize. That’s CABLE, as in “Conductivity-enhanced materials for Affordable, Breakthrough Leapfrog Electric applications.”

The prize is aimed at stimulating activity in the area of new electricity-conducting materials that can ramp up energy efficiency in all electric devices, so keep an eye on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Heat pump courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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