Electric heat pumps are a way to cool and heat homes at a much lower carbon cost than traditional air-conditioners and furnaces.
As global warming fuels deadly heat waves across the country, more Americans in places like the Pacific Northwest are rushing out to buy air-conditioners for the first time.
One common concern is that a surge in air-conditioning could make the planet even hotter, by increasing the need for electricity from power plants running on coal or gas, which produce emissions that drive global warming.
But some energy experts, as well as cities like Denver and Berkeley, Calif., have recently started exploring a counterintuitive strategy: Soaring demand for air-conditioning might actually be a prime opportunity to reduce fossil fuel emissions and fight climate change.
The idea is simple: If Americans are going to buy air-conditioners anyway, either for the first time or to replace older units, why not convince them to buy electric heat pumps instead? Although the name can be confusing, an electric heat pump is essentially an air-conditioner that is slightly modified so that it can run in two directions, cooling the home in the summer and providing heat in the winter.
That extra heating function is the key to helping tackle climate change. During the cooler months, heat pumps could warm homes far more efficiently than the furnaces that run on fossil fuels or electric resistance heaters that most households currently use, which would cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. Existing furnaces would only need to be used as backup on the coldest days of the year, since many heat pumps work less efficiently in subzero temperatures.
Most manufacturers already offer heat pump versions of the air-conditioners they sell, but they’re typically about $200 to $500 more expensive to make. So, the idea goes, policymakers would have to step in with subsidies or regulations to make adoption universal. But if done right, proponents say, households would see utility bills either drop or stay largely unchanged, and they would even enjoy a more comfortable heating experience.
“It’s essentially the same piece of equipment with a few extra parts, and you can make the swap with almost no extra work,” said Nate Adams, a home performance consultant who proposed the idea in a recent paper, written with experts at Harvard University CLASP, a nonprofit formerly known as the Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program that advises governments on energy efficiency.