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US report makes compelling case for heat pumps

A new report focusing on heating and cooling in US homes argues that transitioning from the existing heating systems and one-way air conditioners to two-way heat pumps could slash emissions CO2 emissions by 67Mt and cut national heating costs by US$13.6 billion.

The report, Combating High Fuel Prices with Hybrid Heating, advocates for households to replace existing air conditioning units at end of life with reverse-cycle heat pumps. In the proposal, households would keep their legacy heat systems in place, using them to supplement the heat pump at lower temperatures.

“AC retirements are a low-cost opportunity to bring super-efficient heat pumps into US homes,” says Matt Malinowski, report author and Director of Climate Research at CLASP, one of the organisations behind the publication. “Our report offers a robust argument in favour of making the swap, including huge cost savings for households and meaningful mitigation impacts.”

The report notes that every six seconds a new residential furnace or air conditioner starts up in the US, meaning these households miss out on the opportunity to begin home decarbonisation until that equipment is retired in 2035-2040.

In contrast, 1.7 million oil, 3.1 million propane, 16 million electric resistance, and 33 million methane gas households across the country could benefit immediately from swapping one-way ACs for hybrid heat pumps. Households would also reduce their heating bills by US$77–555 per year, while reducing CO2 emissions by 11–20 per cent, depending on fuel.

Importantly, the report says, the swap can be “a painless ‘no brainer’ for customers and installers”.

“The transition away from fossil heating in the US requires millions of new electric heat pumps to be installed in the next few decades,” says Steve Pantano, Chief of Research at Rewiring America. “But the opportunity is clear. We can tackle a big part of this challenge at a very low cost, save consumers money on their energy bills, and accelerate progress toward our nation’s climate goals.”

The report also highlights the potential to launch a powerful virtuous cycle of electrification.

“More heat pump installations will support increased innovation and scale in manufacturing,” it says, “and increase experience and capacity on the part of installers. This, in turn, should lead to lower upfront costs for consumers and higher levels of awareness and acceptance of the technology, which will motivate yet more installations.

“These factors will also help support heat pumps in other contexts, including full building electrification. In short, a big push for a swap of air conditioners to heat pumps over the next 5–10 years will smooth the way for full building electrification.”

The proposal also addresses a major barrier to installing heat pumps en masse: 85 per cent of HVAC replacements are done on an emergency basis. Because it is a large and unexpected expense, so most consumers try to cut upfront costs – meaning that they usually opt for cheaper, legacy systems.

“A heat pump is usually $300–600 more at wholesale than the equivalent air conditioner,” says the report, “so most customers take the cheaper option. Our proposal could make heat pumps the cheaper option or the only option available. This is critical because in an emergency the only thing that gets installed is what’s in stock.”

The report puts forward a range of policy options to kickstart the process of switching over households to hybrid systems and argues for “a decisive boost from policy” to help overcome remaining barriers.

“There are important steps that states and municipalities can take to speed the effort, which will complement proposals under consideration for federal incentives.”

The report was produced by CLASP and RAP. CLASP is an international non-profit organisation with the stated mission to “improve the energy and environmental performance of the appliances and equipment we use every day, accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world”. It is backed by organisations such as ClimateWorks Foundation, the US Department of State, and the German Government’s International Development Agency (GIZ). RAP – or the Regulatory Assistance Project – describes itself as “an independent, global NGO advancing policy innovation and thought leadership within the energy community”.

To read the report, click here.

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