Heat Pump Mania Is Sweeping The World

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In 1990, a neighbor of mine installed a heat pump. He also used 6″ studs in his exterior walls, which allowed him to pack in almost twice as much insulation. Suffice to say, he was ahead of his time. Today, the heat pump has gone from curiosity to the hottest thing on everyone’s wish list. Why is that? Because people in places like Maine and Alaska are tired of draining their bank accounts each month to pay for heating oil and propane. In Europe, methane gas used to be the preferred heating fuel until Vlad the Impaler decided to turn off the pipelines that supplied the Continent with cheap Russian gas.

This winter — although milder than expected — has still put a strain on family budgets due to high heating bills. The price of oil, propane, and methane ratchets up every winter just as sure as St. Swithern’s Day comes in July. Wired reports that demand for heat pump units has risen dramatically in Alaska this year as fuel oil prices rose above $5 a gallon.

But wait a minute. Does a heat pump work when its bitter cold outside? The answer is, they didn’t used to. My neighbor relied on his trusty oil-fired furnace when temperatures dropped below freezing 30 years ago. But the units available today are capable of providing heat when the temperature outside drops below 0º F.

Vanessa Stevens, a building science researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Fairbanks, tells Wired the latest heat pumps are getting better all the time at handling the cold. “We’re actually testing a heat pump in our lab this spring where the cutoff temperature is –31 degrees Fahrenheit. That was unheard of 10 years ago.”

The Heat Pump Market Is Hot In Alaska, Maine, & Europe

Andy Romanoff, the executive director of Alaska Heat Smart in Juneau, estimates there are about 2,000 heat pump installations in the city today. “We do see a 10 to 15 percent, maybe even 20 percent, increase year over year in the number of permits that are being applied for,” he says. The heat pump installers in Alaska that Heat Smart recommends also say demand for the devices is rising. One installer, Mark Houston, says he got more inquiries at the beginning of 2023 than he did all last year. Another, Kris Karsunky, says he installs between 50 and 70 heat pumps a year, but fields twice that many inquiries. More and more businesses are adopting heat pump technology also, he adds.

Derek Lampert is an electrician who lives in the village of Eklunta near Anchorage. He built a home with 22″ thick walls (my neighbor would be jealous) that is designed to be as energy efficient as possible. He uses a SANCO2 heat pump that uses carbon dioxide as its refrigerant and provides heat and hot water for his home. “We’ve had it as cold as –20 degrees Fahrenheit and it still worked. I was getting 135 degree water. People in my neighborhood spend more [than my entire electricity bill] on propane and heating oil,” says Lampert.

A few weeks ago, we reported on how oil and propane sellers in Maine are working overtime to warn people off installing a heat pump, making all sorts of wild claims designed to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt among home owners. It isn’t working. Demand for heat pumps is surging, even in Aroostook County, the furthest point north in the Lower 48.

Tens of thousands of Maine residents have installed heat pumps lately, mostly because of the high price of heating oil and propane. The electricity needed to operate a heat pump can cost hundreds of dollars a month less than those fossil fuels, which is a pretty powerful incentive to make the switch. It also greatly reduces the amount of time needed to recoup the cost of installation through energy savings.

Bloomberg today, in an email to CleanTechnica, is extolling the response of European citizens to the emergency created by Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. The biggest and most rapid changes to Europe’s energy profile are due to the actions of individuals, it says. Households and businesses invested record amounts in cleaner ways to generate electricity, store power, stay warm, and drive around last year, compared with 2021, Bloomberg says. In 2022, heat pump installations in Europe exceeded 3 million units — nearly 50% more than in 2021.

There are limits to individual action whether in a war or on global problems, Bloomberg says, but at least in the case of climate change, as green technologies have become cheaper and more widely available, that is putting more power in the hands of everyday citizens to take meaningful action than ever before.

The Heat Pump Is Not Perfect — Yet

The International Energy Agency estimates that switching to heat pumps could reduce global carbon emissions by 500 million metric tons by 2030. In principle, that means the more people who drop fossil fuel boilers for these devices, the better — in climate terms. But there are issues. Some machines ice up in extreme cold and — just like with electric cars — total carbon emissions for the units are a function of the source of the electricity they use. If it comes from a coal-fired thermal generating plant, it is less “green” than a similar unit powered by renewable energy. The solution, of course, is to further decarbonize the grid.

Today’s units also use a mix of refrigerants, including propane and carbon dioxide. It’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each in order to make sure you get a unit that is suitable for your individual use case.

The Takeaway

Most people don’t know the difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner. Many are surprised to learn a heat pump can actually make warm as well as cool air. And hot water, too? That’s just crazy talk! People are skeptical of new things, but just in the past decade the smartphone has radically altered the way we communicate with each other. America has a target of 30 million heat pumps by 2030 and is putting the incentives contained in the Inflation Reduction Act to work to make installing a heat pump more affordable for homeowners and businesses.

The chances are good that your grandchildren will grow up with heat pumps and consider them normal just as your grandparents thought it was normal to go into the cellar several times a day to shovel coal into the furnace. The new soon becomes normal and in this case, the Earth will breathe a sigh of relief for every heat pump that gets installed anywhere in the world.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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