Heat Pumps Could Be the Money-Saving, Job-Creating Climate Solution We Need

Heat Pumps Could Be the Money-Saving, Job-Creating Climate Solution We Need
They're just begging for heat pumps. (Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

[Extremely Bernie Sanders voice] I am once again asking you to consider the heat pump.

The poorly named, wonderfully designed means of heating and cooling buildings is having a bit of a moment. And a new report adds to the nerdy drumbeat of reasons to get behind heat pumps as a prime solution to decarbonize homes, save people money, and create jobs.

The analysis, released last Thursday by energy research firm Carbon Switch, uses a unique federal dataset to tease out just how much of an impact the switch to heat pumps could have on U.S. carbon emissions and the economy. Making the switch would save folks an average of $US557 ($755) per year on their home heating and cooling bills, create 6.6 million jobs across the country, and cut carbon emissions by 142 million metric tons annually.

The gains in money saved and jobs created in some states, notably the home to one Sen. Joe Manchin, could be even greater. There are few, if any, win-win-wins quite as impressive, and it’s why policymakers at the federal and state level should be lining up behind heat pumps.

The report came about after Michael Thomas, the founder of Carbon Switch, read another federal report on energy efficiency. He said it was the type of report he can “get really excited about” owing to the massive amounts of data and numbers to crunch, which, bless him and the folks who geek out on this stuff. He reached out to the researchers to get access to the data and focused on the heating and cooling portion to tease out what a heat pump switch would mean for the U.S.

Right now, three-quarters of American homes rely on natural gas, oil, propane, or even wood for heating, and traditional and window air conditioners for cooling. That’s both wildly inefficient and damaging to the climate given the carbon dioxide- and methane-intensive heating sources and the potent greenhouse gases associated with air conditioning.

Thomas set about to seeing what would happen if all those millions of homes switched to heat pumps. Using the federal data, he found that the switch to heat pumps would cost slightly more up front than natural gas or other fossil fuel sources, but the saving owing to the systems’ efficiency would start to immediately pay back dividends. The average payback period is just 11 years, and average homeowners saved $US557 ($755) per year. Some states, though, saw much bigger savings.

“In a place like West Virginia or rural areas of Tennessee or the Carolinas, there’s a lot of lower-income people that just have very inefficient homes, with really inefficient type equipment like a baseboard heater and relatively expensive electricity,” Thomas said, noting those states saw much bigger annual savings. West Virginian households would see an average of $US889 ($1,206) per year in savings and the state would see nearly 52,000 jobs created, a total that the report notes is roughly 19,000 more jobs than there currently are in the state’s coal industry.

For states with a glut of cheap natural gas, though, the savings were less. But the reason gas is so cheap in some places is that the climate damage it causes isn’t factored into that price. That’s why having policies in place that actively consider the whole impact of certain fuels is so important. In Thomas’ report, getting people switched over to heat pumps alone would lop 3% off the entire U.S. carbon budget, a staggering amount to consider for a single appliance. This is why policies that support their installation is so vital. What’s more, heat pumps are ready right now.

And the climate benefits, savings, and job numbers taken together make heat pumps perfectly suited for an infrastructure bill lift. That’s particularly true in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia (as well as, it should be noted, in Arizona, the home state of Democrats’ other obstructionist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema).

“There are some solutions like electric planes or next-generation nuclear power that require a lot of R&D and could provide huge emissions reductions that are far out into the future,” Michael Thomas, the founder of Carbon Switch, said. “There are some solutions that are available today ready for scale and can actually save people money.”

Regulations have traditionally made it easier for utilities to hook up natural gas to heat homes, and utilities have fought and tooth and nail to preserve the fuel’s dominance. Conservative politicians have also done the same; Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill banning gas bans at the city level in Florida. Yet we’re a few swift kicks away from the tables turning on gas. California recently took a major step toward ensuring all homes are electric, and more help could be on the way. It’s frankly not a moment too soon given the climate and safety risks of piping flammable, poisonous fluid into people’s homes.

Thomas said he hopes policies supporting heat pumps make it into either the bipartisan or reconciliation infrastructure bills. “There’s going to be some debate over how much how many tax credits should go in for these types of things or solar or wind,” he said. “I hope that [heat pump support] makes it into the bills and is ambitious.”