Want to Push Back on Russia? Get a Heat Pump

March 7, 2022

Using less energy and switching to renewables has always been a way to fight for peace and democracy across the world. That might have seemed abstract a few weeks ago, but I think we’re in a clarifying moment.

Last week the International Energy Agency cited a massive rollout of heat pumps as a key to ending European dependence on Russian gas.


Want to end Western dependence on Russian natural gas? Buy a heat pump.

OK, OK, heat pumps alone won’t do it. The International Energy Agency’s new 10-point plan to cut European gas imports from Russia by more than 50 billion cubic meters (about a third of the 2021 total) over the coming year envisions that speeding up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps would eliminate just two billion cubic meters. The U.S., meanwhile, doesn’t import any natural gas from Russia.

But that reduction in European gas use in 2021 can be repeated year after year after year as more heat pumps are installed, while heat-pump market share gains in the U.S. and elsewhere can free up natural gas to be exported to Europe, displacing Russian gas. Reducing dependence on Russia probably isn’t the best reason to install more heat pumps, which can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut consumer heating bills. It might, however, be a good excuse to accelerate a transition that’s already gaining speed.

Heat pumps, which exchange heat between indoor air or water and outdoor air, water or soil, are so much more energy-efficient than other heaters that they reduce fossil fuel consumption even if the electricity that powers them is generated by burning fossil fuels. They’ve been available for decades and have achieved modest market penetration on both sides of the Atlantic — heating 6% of residential buildings in Europe, according to the European Heat Pump Association, and 11.5% of housing units in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau — albeit with huge regional differences. These differences are often chalked up to climate, but the fact that heat pumps’ market share is highest in some of the coldest parts of Europe and warmest parts of the U.S. indicates that there must be more going on than that.

The air-to-air heat pumps most common in the U.S., which are basically air conditioners that run hot as well as cold, historically haven’t worked well when outdoor temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius), which happens a lot in Chicago and Detroit, as well as in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Ground-source heat pumps don’t have this limitation but cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, which has limited their uptake in both the U.S. and Europe.

Still, it gets really cold in Finland, Norway and Sweden, and more than 90% of the heaters sold there are now heat pumps, most air-to-air. Technological progress is one big explanation — over the past few years manufacturers have begun to produce air-to-air pumps that deliver heat reasonably efficiently even when outdoor temperatures drop well below freezing. But history and custom and local market conditions clearly play a big role as well, which hints at great potential for growth if those barriers can be overcome.

Carbon Brief:

Experts see heat pumps as one of the main solutions for tackling the carbon emissions associated with keeping buildings warm, both in the UK and internationally. Yet sales of the technology, often likened to a fridge running in reverse, have remained stubbornly low in many countries.

The latest figures, collated in this article for Carbon Brief, show the tides beginning to turn, with sales in 2021 seeing double-digit growth in countries ranging from Austria to China.

Heat pumps are a low-carbon heating technology with the potential to deliver large-scale reductions in carbon emissions from building heat. 

They use electricity to move heat from ambient outside air, water or soil to a building’s interior and to heat water. This process is highly efficient, with heat pumps delivering three to four units of heat for each unit of electricity needed to run them.

When the electricity used to drive a heat pump is produced from low-carbon sources, all this heat is also low carbon. It is this simple capacity to deliver heat very efficiently and cleanly that makes heat pumps a key technology in most pathways to net-zero.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) pathway to net-zero by 2050, for example, includes 1.8bn heat pumps in buildings in 2050 providing 55% of energy demand for heating globally. This compares with just 180m units installed today, providing 7% of heating.

Similarly in the UK, the most cost-effective Climate Change Committee (CCC) “balanced” pathway to net-zero sees the majority of homes being heated with heat pumps by 2050.

Until recently, however, the heat pump market has been growing far more slowly than required in the IEA or CCC scenarios. This is evident from the IEA’s global heat pump stock figures in the chart below, which shows that at current trends only 253m heat pumps would be installed globally by 2030, compared with the 600m units needed by that year in the IEA’s net-zero scenario – a shortfall of 58%.

Globally, just 177m heat pumps had been installed by 2020, according to the IEA’s data. Most of these heat pumps were in China (33%), followed by North America (23%) and Europe (12%).

Interestingly, the highest penetration of heat pumps can be found in the coldest climates, as the chart below shows. In Europe, the four countries with the largest share of heat pumps are Norway (60% of households), Sweden (43% of households), Finland (41% of households) and Estonia (34% of households). These four countries also face the coldest winters in Europe.

Following the slowdown in 2020, initial data suggests the heat pump market saw a strong recovery in 2021, with double-digit growth in some of the countries where figures are available.

Across Europe, for example, the European Heat Pump Association (EHPA) expectsmarket growth to have exceeded 25% in 2021, hitting 2m units sold per year for the first time.

The Polish heat pump association Port PC reported an increase of 60% for heat pumps in 2021, mainly driven by regulations phasing out coal heating for single-family homes in the country.

In Germany, the heat pump market grew by 28% in 2021, with 154,000 units sold – mainly because of the expansion of air source heat pump sales. The adoption of a carbon tax on heating fuels in 2021 partly explains the growth observed.

One Response to “Want to Push Back on Russia? Get a Heat Pump”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Supply is an issue. When I got a heat pump last year, I pretty much had to settle for whatever was on the truck (a “quiet” one that was the only one in that product line that didn’t get an EnergyStar rating). In any case, in spite of our spike freezes in Austin, it’s primary use will be for A/C.

    That said, I do like the fact that I no longer need attic ventilation to prevent the buildup of CO or CO2 from my old gas furnace and water heaters. As with my EV, I’ve quickly come to see the use of combustion-based cars and appliances as…barbaric.

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