Heat pumps: potential adjunct to air-conditioners when coping with extreme temperatures

Image: Heat Pumps get their name from how they work, not what they do. So they heat OR cool based on the desired temperature you want to achieve on your thermostat. Sierra Club
Downtown Pittsburgh seen through smoke from Canadian wildfires in late June.

Erica Smithwick: A practical, financially helpful way to fight climate change

This summer, Pennsylvanians across the state were forced to endure some of the most dangerous levels of air pollution we’ve seen in decades. Smoke from the Canadian wildfires lingered in our communities for days, causing schools to shut down, suspending outdoor activities, and bringing our normal everyday lives to a halt. Make no mistake — this is just a taste of the future our children will inherit if we don’t act urgently on climate change.

While wildfires are nothing new to our natural environment — certain kinds of ecosystems actually depend on wildfires to allow animals and plants to flourish — the wildfires we’ve seen lately are becoming larger and more intense. Study after study shows that climate change is creating hotter, drier conditions that allow wildfires to spread uncontrollably.

Simply put, a heat pump is an electric device fixed to the side of your house that moves warm air into your home when it’s cold outside, and out of your home when it’s hot.

These infernos and the toxic pollutants they release will only continue to harm our neighborhoods and children’s health if we don’t do more to fight climate change. Fortunately, there’s one tool every Pennsylvanian household can utilize to make a real difference. I’m talking, of course, about a heat pump.

Most people know about solar panels and electric cars, but heat pumps sadly haven’t quite broken into the mainstream yet. But despite its clear marketing problem, a heat pump is something every Pennsylvanian invested in safeguarding the planet for future generations should know about.

Simply put, a heat pump is an electric device fixed to the side of your house that moves warm air into your home when it’s cold outside, and out of your home when it’s hot. Instead of emitting harmful, heat-trapping gasses into the air like ordinary furnaces and air conditioners do, heat pumps use heat that’s already there, in the air or in the ground.

Moving heat around is a lot less energy-intensive than producing it, so a heat pump is significantly more efficient than HVAC systems that rely on dirty energy. Call it a clean energy heater and cooler, a green temperature controller, or whatever you want — just know that this device has the potential to slash your home energy bill by up to 40% while reducing your home’s heat-trapping emissions.

Heat pumps are both a pocketbook issue and a planet Earth issue. I am a member of Science Moms, a group of climate scientist moms who encourage other moms to fight climate change, and who look at the practical intersection of climate change and basic life issues.

Compared to the energy my family was using in our old house with electric baseboard heat, the heat pump in our new home has provided us with noticeable savings — we have more home to heat but still a cheaper electric bill. And I love that I barely have to adjust the temperature and I’m never too hot or too cold.

Instead of emitting harmful, heat-trapping gasses into the air like ordinary furnaces and air conditioners do, heat pumps use heat that’s already there, in the air or in the ground.

At a time when two-thirds of Pennsylvania homes rely on fossil fuels burned at the home for heating — more than double the number that uses electric — and fuel prices continue to be extremely volatile, it’s more important than ever for residents to start exploring alternative ways to heat their homes and encourage their friends, neighbors, and family members to do the same.

Fortunately, with last year’s federal clean energy laws, it became easier to get a heat pump. The federal rebate for a heat pump will cover up to 30% of the costs (up to $2,000) to purchase and install one. This is on top of state clean energy discounts available exclusively to Pennsylvanians.

USA new laws: The federal rebate for a heat pump will cover up to 30% of the costs

While the cost of a heat pump, even with government discounts, is not insignificant, it’s important to look at not just what you’ll pay upfront, but what you’ll save down the line. According to the Department of Energy, switching to a heat pump can save a household up to $1,000 per year, and it will also insulate you from fluctuating fossil fuel prices.

The economic potential of a clean energy transition is enormous, as heat pumps specifically are expected to soar in demand. Lastly, Pennsylvanians have the option to choose who supplies their home’s power, and a quick search can tell you if there’s a cleaner, cheaper energy source you can switch to.

It’s never been easier to invest in tools like heat pumps. As climate change continues to harm our children in more dangerous ways — just like this month’s wildfires — it’s paramount to take advantage of the resources available to keep our kids safe. Their future depends on it.

Erica Smithwick is distinguished professor of geography at Penn State University, where she directs the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. Information about Science Moms can be found here.

Heat Pump 101: The Lowdown on the Hottest (And Coolest) Appliance You’ve Never Heard Of

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Heat pumps have been making the headlines in recent months, but this may be the first time many Americans are hearing about the versatile, clean appliance that heats AND cools homes and businesses. So what exactly is this energy efficient machine with the confusing name, and why is it so exciting for the climate and, potentially, your household bottom line?

The Technology

The reason a heat pump has its name, even though it also cools, is because of how it works, not what it does. A gas- or oil- powered furnace or air conditioning system warms air up with a flame or burner or cools it down with a refrigerated coil, respectively, to reach the desired indoor temperature.

A heat pump, on the other hand, moves hot air around to achieve the temperature on your thermostat instead of actually heating or cooling the air.

You may remember from your high school physics class that all air, even cold air, has heat. So, what a heat pump does is move that heat and put it where you want it. In the summer that means taking heat out of the air inside your house and moving it outside. In the winter, it means taking the heat from outside and moving it in. Recent advancements mean heat pumps work efficiently even when the outside air temperature drops well below zero degrees fahrenheit. The same technology can be used for water heaters, too.

That’s what makes a heat pump so versatile in heating and cooling buildings: it can do both simply by moving air around.

Zero Emissions

Unlike most furnaces or air conditioners on the market that are powered by fossil fuels — like methane gas (so-called “natural” gas), propane, and oil — heat pumps are electrically powered. Relying on electricity means that heat pumps do not burn dirty fuels inside your home to be breathed in or released into the atmosphere. Combusting gas or oil in a furnace or air conditioning system releases air pollutants that are harmful to human health and the climate, like nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and climate-disrupting carbon dioxide.

heat pumps do not burn dirty fuels inside your home to be breathed in or released into the atmosphere

These pollutants directly, and seriously, impact human health, from increasing the rates of asthma to causing thousands of premature deaths each year.

For the average US home, installing electric heat pumps in place of a gas furnace and gas water heater will reduce heating emissions more than 45 percent over the next 10 years. That’s the equivalent of cutting a gas-powered car’s carbon pollution by more than half.

Replacing polluting gas furnaces with clean electric heat pumps will decrease carbon pollution in every state over the next 10 years of the appliance’s life — even in states that still rely heavily on coal to power their electricity grid, according to an analysis by the Sierra Club. And the electrical grid in the United States is increasingly moving towards renewable and decarbonized sources; a transition that will happen even faster thanks to grant and loan programs in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 for states and electric utilities to decarbonize the grid through investing in renewable power and clean technologies.

Energy Efficient & Budget Friendly

Analysis by RMI found that heat pumps are “2.2 to 4.5 times more efficient than an Energy Star gas furnace.” Moving to highly efficient heat pump technology can dramatically reduce energy use for cooling homes, alleviating strain on the electrical grid on hot days when electricity demand is high. The same is true for cold weather. Moving to highly efficient heat pump technology can reduce energy use for heating by up to 50 percent or more.

All of this energy savings means consumers will spend less money on their utility bills. According to a report from Rewiring America, replacing fossil fuel furnaces and water heaters with clean electric alternatives can immediately lower costs for 103 million of America’s 121 million homes — savings that amount to more than $37 billion.

Building new homes with electric appliances that run on renewable energy is nearly always less expensive than building homes with polluting fossil fuel appliances. Electrifying existing homes and buildings with fossil fuel appliances is also often cost effective, especially for households that are: 1. Switching away from propane or heating oil; 2. Replacing both a gas furnace and an air conditioning unit; 3. Bundling rooftop solar with electrification.

But there are, of course, upfront costs to retrofitting a home with heat pump technology. So, subsidies for these highly-efficient appliances are key to supporting households in making the switch. Many states offer incentives for converting to a heat pump, and the federal government is committed to helping households make the switch, too. The federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 invests billions of dollars to make household electrification and clean energy upgrades significantly more affordable for consumers, including rebates for low- and moderate-income households to make the switch to electrification.

It is imperative that the United States equitably increases the amount of buildings in the country with affordable, zero-emission, and highly efficient heat pump technology. Doing so will save consumers money, make an increasingly clean grid more reliable, ensure the country is less dependent on volatile and dirty fossil fuels, and help reduce harmful air pollution and meet critical climate goals.

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