With supply chain woes clogging up the electric vehicle pipeline, it may seem that the whole global energy transition is spinning its wheels. Not so! Mobility does not own the whole decarbonization space. Buildings also claim a hefty share of greenhouse gas emissions, and the latest breakthrough in the area of cold weather heat pumps for buildings could accomplish more planet-saving cuts in global emissions than a highway full of EVs.
Heat Pumps To The Rescue
Heat pumps are electrical appliances that can deliver cooling as well as heating to homes and other buildings, with far greater efficiency than other electric heating and cooling systems.
In addition to their energy efficiency benefit, electric heat pumps avoid emissions related to oil and natural gas consumption in buildings, as well as wood pellets and other biomass.
That still leaves the question of fossil power plants. However, to the extent that the local power grid relies on renewable energy, heat pumps also take fossil energy out of the heating and cooling equation with respect to centralized power plants. The same goes for hot water heaters. Heat pumps for clothes dryers are also in the mix.
The numbers add up in larger, industrialized nations like the US, where millions of buildings are in play.
“Space conditioning and water heating account for 46% of building emissions and over 40% of primary energy used in American residential and commercial [buildings]. They also account for 42% of all building energy bills and 56% of household energy bills each year,” the US Department of Energy estimates.
That explains why heat pumps are front and center in Biden administration efforts to decarbonize building energy systems. With an assist from subsidies and incentives, they are are a relatively affordable solution with a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The US government is not the only fan. Utility companies are also beginning to jump on the heat pump bandwagon as a means of selling more kilowatt-hours as the grid shifts into renewables.
Cold Climate Heat Pumps To The Rescue
Heat pumps are becoming a fixture in relatively temperate climates, and the US Department of Energy is on a mission to ensure that colder regions of the country benefit as well.
Last year the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory took a deep dive into the topic and noted that new technology, in the form of ductless heat pumps, could be one way to go. As the name indicates, ductless heat pumps can be installed in a building without the added expense of new ductwork. That can make a significant difference in the cost of new construction as well as retrofits for existing buildings that use steam heat, electric baseboard or other non-duct systems.
“Of course, there are unique challenges in a place like Alaska. While heat pumps have improved over the past decade, they are still affected by low temperatures: The colder it gets, the harder it is to extract heat, and the less efficient the system is,” NREL explained, by way of describing the state of current research.
The agency is also considering whether or not it makes sense to design an entire system to meet extreme cold that only occurs several days a year, or to pair a cold-weather system with baseboard heaters or other alternatives that can kick in during the very coldest days.
Researchers are also working to assess the benefits for buildings that do have existing ductwork. In terms of climate action that area that is ripe for the picking, with 35 million homes in the US alone relying on forced air heating.
“These homes could switch to a heat pump fairly easily because they already have ductwork,” said NREL. “The heat pump simply ties into these existing ducts, like a central air conditioner, to provide conditioned air throughout the home. In places with ductwork and high energy costs, heat pumps are especially attractive—like the Pacific Northwest, for example.”
Highway To High Efficiency
While the research continues apace, the Energy Department also aims to pick up the pace by stimulating private sector investment in next-generation technology. Last year the agency launched the new “Cold Climate Heat Pump Technology” challenge in partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Canada, aimed at supporting innovators in a race to hit a goal of 5 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale.
It looks like the program is off to a roaring start. Last week, the Energy Department announced that the Texas-based company Lennox International has already submitted the program’s first prototype, one year ahead of schedule.
“The prototype delivers 100% heating at 5°F at double the efficiency, and 70% to 80% heating at -5°F and -10°F,” the Energy Department explained, adding that “DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory validated the performance and efficiency of Lennox’s prototype.”
If all goes according to plan, the Lennox prototype and any others that meet the challenge will be ready for commercial development by 2024, alongside public outreach and education campaigns assisted by other partners in the campaign including utilities and not-for-profit electric cooperatives.
How Does It Work?
As for the new Lennox breakthrough, the company is not giving away all the juicy details. However, Lennox does have a running start on the competition, partly through its participation in the Science Based Targets initiative, a voluntary platform that helps manufacturers focus on cutting downstream emissions related to the use of their products, in addition to decarbonizing operations on the manufacturing end.
Lennox also has track record of innovation in the heat pump business, including the debut of a new cold weather model back in February. According to the company’s press kit, the new “Dave Lennox Signature® Collection model SL25XPV” is the “most precise and efficient heat pump on the market.”
They weren’t kidding around. “The variable-capacity SL25XPV heat pump represents a step forward in Lennox’ dedication to accelerating environmental sustainability through ongoing product innovation and advances in energy usage and emission reductions,” they said, citing a stepped-up iteration of their core Precise Comfort™ and TruHeat Performance technologies along with a new aluminum alloy coild dubbed “Quantum™ Coil.”
“This new, industry-changing cold climate heat pump offers maximum energy efficiency without sacrificing the high-quality performance that comes with Lennox products…With the SL25XPV heat pump, homeowners can rely on a rich warmth similar to that of a gas furnace, while maintaining the highest possible efficiency for the lowest environmental impact,” added Tim Brizendine, the company’s Director of Product Management.
According to Lennox, the SL25XPV model performs more efficiently than conventional models in all regions of the US. That doesn’t necessarily mean it meets the 5 degree goal of the Cold Climate Challenge, but can mean a lot for saving money on utility bills, which the company estimates at 58%.
Stay tuned for more on the Cold Climate Challenge as we await word from the other eight participants.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Courtesy of US Department of Energy.