Pacific Northwest heat wave makes the case for incentivizing heat pumps

Electric heat pumps can act as air conditioners — and move home heating systems away from natural gas.

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Justin Guay is director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, and Nate Adams is co-founder of HVAC 2.0. This contributed content represents the views of the authors, not those of Canary Media.

As the Pacific Northwest heat wave shatters records, millions who have lived without air conditioning are realizing that it is no longer safe to do so. The once-in-a-millennium” heat dome currently debilitating the region is, unfortunately, the type of weather event we’re going to be experiencing a lot more often in the future.

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That recognition will drive a large group of people to invest in air conditioners for the first time. If we are smart and act fast, this wave of consumers making new AC purchases can be steered toward efficient heat pumps (which also offer cooling services), boosting an energy transition that electrifies everything instead of just making climate change worse.

We’ve both spent significant time in parts of the country like Portland, Oregon, the mountains of Utah and the suburbs of Cleveland where people seldom have central AC because the climatic conditions of the past meant they didn’t need it. We simply suffered through, at most, a few weeks of hot weather each year with the help of fans or maybe a window AC unit.

As weather patterns change, causing regions such as the Northwest U.S. to see temperatures soar by 30 to 40 degrees above normal, we can’t just suffer through it anymore — doing so is actually life-threatening. That means people like us who grew up without AC are going to start buying new units very soon.

But what if instead of buying new air conditioners, we all bought heat pumps instead? A heat pump is essentially an AC unit that can heat as well as cool — it just has a few more valves so it can perform both functions. With this one unit, you also get an efficient heating source that runs on electricity, which can replace natural-gas-fired furnaces or other less efficient forms of electric heating.

Unfortunately, most manufacturers of AC equipment don’t unlock the heating capability because it costs a bit more to do it. If that cost were not an issue, AC manufacturers could not only help deploy life-saving AC to parts of the country that now need it, but they could also deploy clean and natural-gas-free heating at the same time.

That’s the argument made in a recent policy paper by Nate Adams, co-author of this piece, and the team at Clasp, an international nonprofit organization that works to mitigate climate change and improve appliance energy performance and efficiency. Their analysis calls for a supply-side intervention to make heat pumps affordable and universally available, instead of a demand-side approach that relies on consumers to seek out heat pumps. Right now it can be difficult for even a highly motivated homeowner to get a heat pump installed.

The paper proposes incentivizing AC manufacturers and distributors to only make or sell two-way heat pumps moving forward — no more one-way air conditioners. To get from here to there, the Clasp team argues for federal incentives to HVAC manufacturers, suppliers and/​or distributors, potentially from the U.S. Department of Energy. Or state legislators and regulators could incentivize the adoption of heat-pump AC units through utility programs, allowing utilities to incorporate the costs into electricity rates.

Almost all air-conditioner models have a heat-pump version that costs roughly $300 to $500 more than the cooling-only version, making it a fairly straightforward cost to cover. If that cost difference were to be covered by upstream subsidies, consumers would pay the same amount for a two-way heat pump as for a one-way AC unit.

That shift from consumers to manufacturers and suppliers is vital. Most standard AC replacement purchases are driven by existing equipment breaking down — and, now, by historic heat waves — which causes panic-buying to kick in. That almost always leads people to purchase the first replacement the existing ecosystem offers them, which is almost never a heat pump. Incentivizing upstream manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and utilities to make heat pumps the only option for AC replacements breaks the HVAC doom loop” that blocks the adoption of heat pumps and electrification.

If there are no one-way air conditioners on the shelves, homeowners will install two-way heat pumps — and benefit from the accompanying savings on heating costs and reductions in fossil fuel pollution.

We’ve seen the outcomes of well-intentioned downstream programs aimed at homeowners. Too often, they slow or stop transactions between homeowners and contractors because they’re so difficult to navigate. Justin lived this experience in California and can say with high confidence that it’s extremely unlikely most individuals will thwart the system, even with incentives intended to help them do it. Nate works with HVAC contractors, a surprising number of whom don’t like heat pumps. They naturally steer homeowners away from them, something he and the HVAC 2.0 program are working to change.

Ultimately, this heat wave is going to sell a lot of one-way air conditioners. Before the next headline-making heat dome arrives, we need to radically change course. A legacy residential HVAC system is installed about every six seconds in the U.S., which means that 30 have been installed in the time it took you to read this piece. We can’t wait until 2035 or 2040, when that equipment will break down, to replace systems with heat pumps. Let’s make this crisis into an opportunity and get to work making the U.S. into a heat-pump nation.

(Article image courtesy of Lucian Dachman) 

Justin Guay is the director for global climate strategy for Sunrise Project. He has more than a decade of experience in nonprofit advocacy and foundation strategy development.

Nate “The House Whisperer” Adams is the author of The Home Comfort Book and the co-founder of HVAC 2.0.