Environmental Benefits of Heat Pumps

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Heat pumps are becoming increasingly popular for space and water heating in homes. Utilities and governments are incentivizing heat pump usage as a positive alternative to natural gas furnaces or water heaters. But what are heat pumps, and what makes them so beneficial to the environment?

The Short Version

A heat pump is an air conditioner in reverse that uses about 1/4 the energy to heat your home or water. Since it runs on electricity, it can be powered by cleaner, renewable sources of energy.

The Long Version

To understand why heat pumps are so beneficial, we first need to understand the environmental harm posed by the most common method of heating space and water — burning natural gas. Burning gas produces nitrogen oxides, or “nox” (NOx), which facilitates the creation of ozone. NOx and ozone are the two principal components of smog in Southern California. Burning gas increases air pollution, which causes or exacerbates many forms of respiratory illness like asthma. Carbon Footprint

When natural gas burns, it also creates carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that’s currently warming the planet and will continue to do so for thousands of years after we burn it. Adding to this problem, a few percent of the gas headed to our homes leaks and itself is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Leaked gas, and the carbon dioxide emitted by burning gas, are both primary contributors to a warming planet.

Given the negative air quality and climate consequences of burning natural gas, we’d like to provide heat without burning gas. That’s where heat pumps come in. A heat pump is a device that moves heat from a colder to a warmer space. You likely already have two heat pumps in your home right now: your air conditioner and your refrigerator. Both of these move heat from colder spaces to warmer spaces. In the case of your air conditioner, it moves heat from the cooler home to the hotter outside air in the summer. Because this is not the natural way that heat wants to flow, it needs to be helped out with some electrical energy. But because it’s just moving heat around instead of creating it, it’s really efficient, using 1/4 of the energy of a gas furnace.

So an air conditioner is a heat pump. Why can’t we just use the air conditioner to heat our homes in the winter? We can! If we reverse the direction of the refrigerant, our air conditioner can heat our home in the winter. Heat pumps are just like your current air conditioner — they look and function the same — but they have a valve that reverses the direction of the refrigerant to heat or cool as you desire. This means you no longer need a gas-burning furnace or water heater.

Now, you may rightly be concerned that heat pumps still require electricity, and some CA electricity is produced by burning gas in power plants. Nonetheless, heat pumps are still better. Here’s why.

First, heat pumps are so efficient that they ultimately require less gas than a furnace even if all of the electricity was produced by burning gas.

Second, most (~55%) of California’s electricity is not produced by burning gas, but instead produced with sources of energy that don’t pollute our air or warm the planet: hydropower, solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal. Furthermore, the California electric grid is required to get cleaner with time by law, so a heat pump will get cleaner with time!

In summary, heat pumps are efficient (requiring about ~1/4 of the energy that a furnace uses to provide the same amount of heat) and the source of that energy is pretty clean and getting cleaner with time. One of the simplest ways to improve our air quality and mitigate climate change is to replace your air conditioner and furnace with a heat pump.

Written in collaboration with Brian Siana, Associate Faculty Director of Sustainability at University of California, Riverside.

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