The humble electric heat pump has been emerging as a climate action hero, and the EU energy company Vattenfall is among those who see the electrification writing on the wall. Vattenfall has just teamed up with the firm Feenstra to introduce a new heat pump that can replace natural gas boilers on a drop-in basis, without the need for expensive retrofits or new insulation.
The Heat Pump Revolution Is Here
Air-sourced heat pumps work by shifting heat from one place to another. The foundational idea is that heat naturally wants to move from one place to another, namely, from warmer places to cooler places. Heat pumps simply take that ball and run with it.
The name “heat pump” is actually a bit of a misnomer, because the same unit can hit reverse and become an air conditioner when the inside temperature is too warm.
The implications of the heat pump trend for the building electrification movement are huge. Much attention has been focused on prying fossil energy loose from its grip on large, centralized power plants, but decarbonizing individual buildings is also part of the planet saving plan.
Here in the US, electricity stakeholders have begun to embrace the idea that they can sell more kilowatts by encouraging their customers to ditch fossil energy heaters and boilers in favor of a heat pump. That may have factored into last year’s decision by two utilities to drop their support for a new natural gas pipeline in North Carolina.
The US Department of Energy is a fan, having issued a report that enlists “millions of heat pumps” to pitch in for rapid decarbonization.
Vattenfall Piles Onto Heat Pump Scramble
At least one fossil energy stakeholder has already begun to hedge its bets on the building electrification movement. That would be Shell, which has teamed up with the company PassivSystems to introduce next-generation heat pump technology. In 2019 the two companies introduced a new hybrid system that can switch between fossil energy and electricity, depending on weather conditions.
That’s why it’s no surprise to see the Swedish energy company Vattenfall joining the heat pump rush, especially in consideration of the steps it is taking to disentangle itself from coal and natural gas. That transition is not nearly complete, but the Vattenfall is quickly gaining a foothold in the areas of floating solar, green hydrogen, and other emerging technologies along with its more conventional wind and solar investments.
Vattenfall has teamed up with the firm Feenstra to roll out its new all-electric heat pumps, starting with The Netherlands later this year.
A Drop-In Replacement For Natural Gas
The UK will be next in line for the new heat pumps, and if you’re wondering why not the rest of the EU, that’s a good question.
The answer has to do with the heating systems commonly used in buildings in the Netherlands and UK. The new heat pumps operate at high temperatures, and they are designed to replace heating systems that rely on natural gas to boil water, which is then circulated to radiators throughout a building. Systems like these are commonplace in the Netherlands and the UK, so that is a logical place to start a marketing campaign.
“The similarities between Dutch and British gas central heating mean these high temperature heat pumps could be suitable for UK housing in suburban and rural areas,” Vattenfall explains. “They could enable households to swap out their existing gas boilers without needing to go to the additional expense and disruption of changing the rest of their heating system or installing additional insulation at the same time.”
As for why conventional heat pumps won’t do the trick, Vattenfall explains that heat pumps normally operate between 45 and 55 degrees Celsius, meaning that building owners seeking to switch out their gas boiler would have to invest in new insulation and other retrofits to get enough heat. The Vattenfall-Feenstra mashup falls into the range of 60 to 80 degrees Celsius, which is what gas boilers deliver.
More Bad News For Natural Gas
As described by Vattenfall, heat pumps are not the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution for every building. The company is pitching them to suburban and rural areas, where individual heat pump installations would provide a relatively inexpensive alternative to building or retrofitting sprawling distribution networks.
For more densely packed urban areas, Vattenfall promotes heating district networks that would rely on captured waste heat.
None of this is good news for natural gas stakeholders in the US, who have barely finished celebrating after word dropped that the US is expected to lead the world in liquified natural gas exports this year.
That’s quite a turnaround for the US. Prior to 2016, the country only exported natural gas from the lower 48 states by pipeline to Mexico. Maritime exports of LNG from the US were not a thing until 2016.
“U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) export capacity has grown rapidly since the Lower 48 states first began exporting LNG in February 2016.,” the US Energy Information Agency reported last month. “In 2019, the United States became the world’s third-largest LNG exporter, behind Australia and Qatar. Once the new LNG liquefaction units, called trains, at Sabine Pass and Calcasieu Pass in Louisiana are placed in service by the end of 2022, the United States will have the world’s largest LNG export capacity.”
New gas export terminals have faced fierce opposition in some cases, but that does not appear to have slowed the pace of activity. What will slow things down is a drop in demand, and that appears to be where Vattenfall and other like-minded energy stakeholders are heading.
Heat Pumps Vs. The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline
Natural gas is an especially hot topic in the EU due to its reliance on gas imports from Russia on top of all that stuff about climate change. The Obama administration and members of Congress supported relaxing LNG export rules partly under the theory that gas from the US would weaken Russia’s leverage over EU energy markets.
Former President Donald Trump* took over the White House in 2016, reportedly with an assist from a propaganda campaign attributed to Russia. If Russia expected Trump to pay back the favor by clamping down on LNG exports upon taking office, they should have looked at the fine print. As might be expected, the Trump administration gleefully ramped up the pace of LNG export activity.
The Trump administration also may have surprised the folks over at Kremlin HQ by sending former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to Ukraine in 2019, where he officially confirmed US opposition to the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a key project for Russian natural gas stakeholders. Nord Stream 2 would bypass Ukraine and Poland, to shunt gas directly from Russia into Germany.
The Biden administration seems to have taken the opposite, tack, and has lobbied against actions in Congress aimed at sanctioning Nord Stream 2. However, all may not be as it seems. The lobbying may be intended to buy time for Germany to deal with the whole mess. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported Nord Stream 2, but she is no longer in office. The new Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has stated that Nord Stream 2 can’t be approved “as-is.”
That does leave the door cracked open, but if companies like Vattenfall have their way Russia will win the Nord Stream 2 battle and lose the heat pump war.
The latest report from the International Energy Agency indicates that interest in heat pumps is booming in the EU, with Germany emerging as one of the top three markets.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: High temperature, air to air heat pump courtesy of Vattenfall.
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