Heat pumps: The most boring climate solution

By Michael Thomas

Heat pumps: The most boring climate solution

Why climate experts are getting excited about HVAC

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Otherwise known as HVAC. There aren’t many words that are guaranteed to make someone’s eyes glaze over more than those ones. 

But the energy we use heating and cooling our homes — in other words, HVAC — is responsible for 12% of emissions in America. And that is why climate experts are getting excited about one energy-efficient HVAC solution in particular: heat pumps.

The problem heat pumps aim to solve

In order to understand why heat pumps are such an important climate solution, it’s helpful to consider a few things:

  • Home energy use is responsible for 20% of emissions in America. That’s a billion tons of emissions per year. If America’s buildings were a country, they would rank 4th in annual emissions, just behind India and ahead of Russia. So anything we can do to cut these emissions will have a country-level impact.
  • Heating and cooling are responsible for 60% of the energy used in a home. That means we’re emitting 600 million tons of emissions per year running our furnaces and A/C. To use the country comparison again, if our furnaces and air conditioners were a country they’d rank 10th in annual emissions. 10th!

Anything we can do to cut these emissions will help us make a lot of progress towards our climate goals. And fortunately there’s a solution that has been around for decades that can help us do just that.

Enter the heat pump.

What makes heat pumps different

At risk of oversimplification, you can think about a heat pump as an air conditioner that also heats a home (or vice versa). It’s a machine that sits in your basement or on your walls that blows hot or cold air through your home just like any old furnace or A/C unit.

It sounds fancy. It’s not. It’s actually really sort of boring. It’s energy efficient HVAC.

But as a climate solution it’s anything but boring. And in order to understand why, you have to understand what makes heat pumps different than alternative heating and cooling equipment:

  1. They run on electricity. That means when they replace a natural gas, propane, or fuel oil heater they enable decarbonization that wasn’t otherwise possible. (After all, installing solar panels on your roof or signing up for community solar wouldn’t do much to cut the emissions from your natural gas furnace).
  2. They’re super efficient. Compared to electric furnaces or baseboard heaters they use way less electricity. (If you want to understand why here’s a good video). That means if we can get heat pumps in every home we can build less wind farms, solar panels, and transmissions lines. Given how much that infrastructure costs to build and how remarkably bad we’ve gotten at building things in this country, that’s really important.

Why everyone’s so excited about… HVAC

With those two ideas in mind we can zoom out a bit and look at why climate and energy experts get excited about heat pumps.

  • The scale of the opportunity is massive. If we can get heat pumps in every home in America and transition to a 100% renewable grid we can cut emissions by 600 million tons per year. There aren’t many other climate solutions that can help us make so much progress towards our climate goals.
  • The technology is already production-ready. Heat pump technology has been around for decades. Manufacturers are already making tens of million of units per year due to their popularity in countries/regions with high electricity prices. Compare this to a climate solution like direct-air capture that is still decades away from sucking hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 from the sky and heat pumps look pretty good.
  • They can save homeowners money. For tens of millions of homeowners heat pumps are a no-brainer investment. Many of them can save more than $1,000 per year on their utility bills. A lot of climate solutions require sacrifice. Heat pumps are the opposite: they put money in people’s pocket

So should you get a heat pump?

Last month I crunched a bunch of data from the National Renewable Energy Labratory (NREL), to estimate the utility bill and carbon savings homeowners can expect by switching to a heat pump. (I published the results here. And Gizmodo wrote up a nice summary of my research here).

What I found is that the vast majority of homeowners in America will save money by switching to a heat pump. But the savings vary — a lot.

For homeowners that are currently heating their home with baseboard heat, it’s a no-brainer. They can expect to save $1,287 per year and get the money they invest back in 7 years.

Homeowners that use natural gas, on the other hand, can expect to save $105 on average by switching. That results in a 100+ year payback period, which is unsatisfying to say the least.

And even those averages are misleading since homes, climates, and energy prices vary so widely. I wrote about this in more detail in a guide to heat pumps you can read here.

That guide and some of the others on the Carbon Switch website are a great place to start, but in my experience folks generally want to talk it through with someone. So if you are interested in getting a heat pump I’d be happy to help you figure out if it makes sense based on where you live.  

Alright that’s all for now, folks. As always if you made it this far thank you for taking the time out of your day and see you next week! 👋

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