Can Heat Pumps Hack the Cold?

March 3, 2023

Spoiler, Mainers and Scandanavians say yes.

New York Times:

Many heat pumps that are built for cold climates do have hefty upfront price tags. To soften the blow, a federal tax credit from last year’s climate and tax law can cover 30 percent of the costs of purchase and installation, up to $2,000.

As they’ve grown in popularity, heat pumps have increasingly been the subject of misconception and, at times, misinformation. Fossil-fuel industry groups have been the origin of many exaggerated and misleading claims, including the assertion that they don’t work in regions with cold climates and are likely to fail in freezing weather.

While heat pumps do become less efficient in subzero temperatures, many models still operate close to normally in temperatures down to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 24 Celsius. Some of the latest models are even more efficient, and many “cold” countries, like Norway, Sweden and Finland, are increasingly embracing heat pumps.

“We’re starting to see evidence that the myth has been kept alive by people with an entrenched interest in avoiding the adoption of heat pumps,” Dr. Calisch said.

There are additional steps homeowners can take to make the most of their heat pumps, like sealing air leaks and drafts and improving insulation, said Troy Moon, the sustainability director for the city of Portland, Maine. Homeowners can also keep their existing furnaces as backup for the coldest days of the year, he said.

Washington Post:

VAN BUREN, Maine — The video starts with a Maine radio show host dressed in a bright-red jumpsuit walking through the snow to a stranger’s door and delighting her with an offer of free heating oil. “My name’s Blake, we’re from Maine Energy Facts, and we want to fill up your oil — it’s on us!” he says at another stop, where a woman thanks him profusely as she cradles her baby.

Funded by a heating oil industry group, the “Fuel Your Love” promotional campaign has a feel-good touch, but it directs viewers to a website dispensing home heating advice that is peppered with overwhelmingly negative, and sometimes misleading, claims about electric-powered heat pumps, saying they “are simply not ideal for climates like ours.”

The message doesn’t seem to be working. Mainers are embracing heat pumps — boxy machines that function like reverse air conditioners, combining heating and cooling systems in a single unit. In a state where winter is long and chilling, and exorbitant oil and gas prices have motivated people to switch, crews have installed tens of thousands of heat pumps, prompting the fossil fuel industry to step up its efforts to beat back the trend.

Internal documents show that the National Oilheat Research Alliance, a trade association representing heating oil sellers, has funded campaigns fighting electrification that target New England homeowners and real estate agents. The Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewables group, obtained the documents through a public records request and shared them with The Washington Post.


One Response to “Can Heat Pumps Hack the Cold?”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    Shades of the ‘Oil Heat Association of Long Island’ heavily backing the protests against the completed, but never operated, Shoreham reactor in 1979 – all entirely in the public interest, of course.
    I use a heat pump myself, though New Zealand winters are nowhere near as cold as New England’s. Couple of issues, though, besides their effectiveness.
    Firstly, I’m already on my second heat pump – the first stopped working, and the guy I called to look at it told me it was toast (after maybe five years) and installed another at the opposite end of the living room. I’ve no idea what refrigerant is in the old one, but from what I’ve heard, even if the former ozone-destroying CFCs have been banned, the chemicals that replaced them still have a very hefty carbon footprint. There doesn’t seem to be any organised disposal system here.
    The second concern is where the power for the heat pumps comes from. The power failure in Texas was aggravated by huge demand for home heating gas, leaving none for the gas turbines which are the State’s primary electricity source. The recent storm in New England might have caused a repeat, except that ENSO-New England, unlike the (confusingly-named) Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, requires some gas generators to keep enough fuel oil on hand to stand in for gas, if supplies falter. At peak demand yesterday, 40% of New England’s power was from gas, 22% from nuclear, and 20% imported from Canada and New York. Only 1.5% came from wind, 4% from biomass, and 11% from local hydro. If heat pumps and EVs are adopted en masse, and emissions reductions goals attempted, winter power demand is likely to spike well above the current US summer air conditioning maxima. It’s unlikely that Quebec will have power to spare – they’re already net importers during parts of the cold season.

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