Better heat pumps for commercial buildings are coming soon

The Department of Energy is convening manufacturers and customers like IKEA and Amazon to get next-gen heat pumps ready for commercial rooftops by 2027.
By Alison F. Takemura

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A large grey metal HVAC appliance on a rooftop. Image color-treated with red background, the appliance in true color.
Meet the packaged rooftop heat pump. Commercial buildings commonly use packaged rooftop units, though most burn gas for heating, rather than utilize heat-pump technology. (Michael Deru, National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

The U.S. Department of Energy has launched a program to turbocharge the manufacture and deployment of next-generation heat pumps for commercial buildings.

Heat pumps aren’t just for homes. They can help decarbonize big-box stores, schools, grocery shops, offices, hospitals and hotels, all of which fall under the commercial building umbrella, said Maria Vargas, director of the DOE Better Buildings Initiative, which leads DOE’s new Commercial Building Heat Pump Accelerator program.

The accelerator — a public-private partnership bringing together manufacturers, commercial building owners and the DOE national labs — aims to hasten the development of more cost-effective and efficient, cold-climate heat pumps that sit on flat commercial roofs, a type of packaged rooftop unit.

We’re partnering now with almost all the manufacturers of these units [in the U.S.],” Vargas said. AAON, Carrier Global Corp., Johnson Controls, Lennox International, Rheem Manufacturing Co., and Trane Technologies have joined the program. They’ll work to develop and test new rooftop heat pumps to bring them to the market as soon as 2027, Vargas noted. That’s a big lift.”

But it’s a crucial step for getting buildings off fossil fuels. Less than 15 percent of the roughly 6 million commercial buildings in the U.S. use heat pumps for heating and cooling. And adoption of rooftop heat pumps is generally limited to mild climate zones and areas served by all-electric utilities that don’t have gas lines. Typically, commercial spaces use conventional fossil-gas rooftop units for heating instead.

Compared to these fossil-fired units, heat pumps reduce carbon emissions and energy costs by up to 50 percent, Vargas said.

Wildly efficient and able to run on clean electric power, heat pumps are essential to meeting national climate goals. They’re also a key part of the first-ever national blueprint to decarbonize buildings by 2050, a roadmap DOE unveiled this month, which also calls for a 25 percent reduction in building emissions by 2035. Buildings — in their energy use, materials and construction — are responsible for about 35 percent of total carbon emissions in the U.S., with commercial buildings specifically accounting for about 12 percent of total U.S. emissions, according to the DOE.

Once heat pumps are deployed on commercial rooftops nationwide, the department estimates they could save in aggregate $5 billion on utility bills every year.

Ten commercial partners have joined the accelerator, including retailers Amazon, Ikea, Target and Whole Foods, as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District. They’ve promised to be early adopters, and may well be test beds for heat-pump prototypes, though they haven’t yet made any firm commitments as to how many newly developed offerings they’ll purchase, Vargas told Canary Media.

One of the major hurdles the accelerator aims to clear is making heat-pump rooftop units better adapted to the cold, a task that DOE says is more technically challenging than for residential models.

The agency has been working on the latter for a few years now. In 2021, it issued a similar challenge for home heat pumps. The DOE Residential Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge pushed manufacturers — some of which are also participating in the commercial accelerator — to develop new models that could brave freezing conditions, achieving 40 percent greater efficiencies than conventional heat pumps and blasting heat at full capacity down to 5˚F.

Manufacturers are now field testing prototypes from that program in homes across 10 states. Although those particular models aren’t on the market yet, plenty of cold-weather models are and have already proven their mettle in wintry states such as Maine.

The commercial building heat-pump accelerator doesn’t have specific performance targets just yet. Our goal is to maximize the heat supplied by the heat pump and minimize the heat supplied by [less efficient] back-up heat,” Vargas said. Over the coming months, the DOE will work with manufacturers and commercial partners to finalize more concrete specifications, she noted.

Ralph DiNola, chief executive officer of the decarbonization nonprofit New Buildings Institute, also sees an opportunity for the program to nudge commercial rooftop heat-pump development in directions that will help reduce emissions not only from the buildings they sit on top of, but from the grid, too. For example, the accelerator could require its heat pumps to have wireless controls that would allow operators to shift heat-pump use away from times of peak demand on the grid, when power is both especially expensive and polluting.

I’m very excited” about the DOE’s accelerator program, DiNola said. This is overdue. Every rooftop unit should be a heat pump.”

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.