President Biden Enlists Heat Pumps For Climate Emergency Action

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In an epic case of perfect timing, Consumer Reports just issued a new report on heat pumps on July 19, and just one day later President Biden’s history-making climate emergency announcement included heat pumps. Well, it was just a little mention. And to be clear, the announcement was not an emergency declaration. Still, it’s yet another indication that decarbonization is going mainstream, with or without an assist from US Senator Joe Manchin.

President Biden Declares A Climate Emergency, Almost

In his July 20, announcement, President Biden skated pretty close to declaring a climate emergency.

“Today, President Biden will reiterate that climate change is a clear and present danger to the United States,” the White House explained. “Since Congress is not acting on this emergency, President Biden will. In the coming weeks, President Biden will announce additional executive actions to combat this emergency.”

Right back at you, Congress. The Democratic majority in the House actually did pass the President’s Build Back Better climate action bill last fall, even though zero Republican members supported it. However, they can’t secure an all-Democratic majority in the Senate to pass the bill without Senator Manchin (D-WV) on board, and the Senator’s various engagements with the fossil energy industry appear to be getting in the way.

Heat Pumps To The Rescue!

Where were we? Oh right, heat pumps. In the emergency announcement, they pop up in a section about the Department of Health and Human Services, regarding the administration of assistance under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program.

LIHEAP is more familiar as a heating assistance program for income-eligible households. The new guidance clarifies that cooling assistance is essential, too.

The new LIHEAP guidance specifically mentions high efficiency air source heat pumps as “the most energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners for all climate zones.”

“The guidance provides for a range of flexible options including increasing funding for cooling assistance through the American Rescue Plan; establishing community cooling centers; and purchasing, distributing, or loaning efficient air conditioning equipment, evaporative coolers and electric heat pumps—a more energy-efficient alternative for providing cooling services—to vulnerable households and individuals,” the White House explains.

Why Are Heat Pumps So Special?

Considering that the new climate emergency announcement was front-loaded with all sorts of other news, it is fair to ask why all the fuss over heat pumps. After all, heat pumps are fairly common already, at least in some areas.

The big difference consists of technology improvements in recent years, which enable heat pumps to function more efficiently in a wider range of climates. That makes heat pumps a key tool in the building electrification movement throughout practically every region of the US.

As electrical appliances, heat pumps replace fossil energy for space heating and cooling. They are also being applied to hot water heaters and clothes dryers, too. They make it more likely that more jurisdictions will begin to ban gas hookups for new construction.

Working the electricity angle to the next level, they can be deployed as elements in virtual power plants, and the US Department of Energy has identified them as an essential pathway in the transition to a sustainable energy profile.

Next Question: Where Will All The Electricity Come From?

If heat pumps are the Next Big Thing, it’s also fair to ask where all the extra electricity for millions of new heat pumps will come from. Hopefully, not from new fossil power plants. That’s where the other news about the climate emergency announcement comes in.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that President Biden traveled to a decommissioned coal power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts to announce the new set of climate emergency measures. Massachusetts is just one among several states in along the northeast Atlantic coast that are finally beginning to tap their vast offshore wind potential.

States along the southern end of the coast have been somewhat less aggressive in their pursuit of offshore wind, for reasons best known only to the elected officials who make those decisions. However, whether they like it or not, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management still has the authority to lease areas in federal waters for offshore wind farms, and lease they are.

“The prior Administration cast uncertainty over the future of offshore wind and other clean energy development off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina,” the White House explained. “Today, President Biden is directing the Secretary of the Interior to advance clean energy development in these federal waters—ensuring that these southeast states will be able to benefit from good-paying jobs in the burgeoning offshore wind industry.”

So. There.

More Offshore Wind Power For The US Southeast

More clean kilowatts are especially important for the US southeast as the climate warms up and demand for air conditioning continues to rise. In terms of wind energy resources in the area, offshore is an especially important piece of the puzzle because onshore wind resources in the region are less than optimal. Taller wind turbine towers and other technology fixes will make onshore wind more economical in the southeast, eventually, but offshore wind is the name of the game for now.

With that in mind, the Biden administration is also enlisting the Gulf of Mexico in the push for more offshore wind. Wind speeds in the Gulf are not particularly optimal, but back in 2020 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory mapped out scenarios that could make the bottom line case for offshore wind in the Gulf.

At the time, Louisiana was the only Gulf state to jump at the potential to make bank from offshore wind. In the new climate emergency announcement, the White House announced that Texas will also be part of the plan:

“The Administration will seek public input on two potential Wind Energy Areas—one off the coast of Galveston, Texas and another off the coast of Lake Charles, Louisiana. The area for review covers over 700,000 acres, with the potential to power over three million homes with clean energy,” the White House said.

Texas, Heat Pumps, & A Way Out Of This Mess

If the interest of Texas in offshore wind comes as a bit of a shocker, we were surprised, too! The 2020 NREL analysis did not reveal a solid economic case for offshore wind in Texas, partly due to competition from other energy resources.

However, a hint of things to come popped up last year, when a group of Texas energy stakeholders began talking about a green hydrogen hub, leveraging the state’s considerable solar and onshore wind resources along with its existing energy infrastructure. New offshore wind farms could be added to the mix, so stay tuned for more on that.

Meanwhile, that July 19 Consumer Reports heat pump article is worth a close read.

“Heat pumps are having a moment in the spotlight — or as close to one as a heating and cooling appliance can get,” they observed. “Whether it’s ducted heat pumps, mini-splits, or even geothermal systems, there’s a buzz around this climate-friendly HVAC tech.”

Check out the article for all they details. Along with a few caveats and a buying guide (CR members also get access to reliability and customer satisfaction ratings), they explain why heat pumps are more eco-friendly, why they typically save money, how easy they are to install, and why they perform better than conventional HVAC in term of maintaining a comfortable temperature.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (cropped): Heat pump courtesy of US Department of Energy.

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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 3292 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey