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Electrification through heat pumps in Biden infrastructure plan

04/19/2021

In part two of our series on the Biden infrastructure plan (formally known as the American Jobs Plan) we’ll explain why heat pumps will play an important role in the climate goals that are a central theme of the plan, and how successful programs will need to be structured in order to deliver long-term success.

The overall spending suggested in the plan is massive and spans a large array of different sectors and technologies. While it is still unclear exactly how much will be allocated to any specific technology, it seems clear that heat pumps (both air and ground-source) are specifically mentioned as a priority, and lawmakers have been increasingly referring to electrification as an important pillar in the infrastructure/jobs/climate strategy. 

Beneficial electrification is a transformational new approach to energy efficiency that focuses on replacing fossil fuels with electricity in transportation, heating, and other domestic appliances (e.g. hot water heating and cooking). Two of the central technologies are electric vehicles (the subject of the first post in this series), and air-source heat pumps.

Air-source heat pumps provide highly efficient heating and cooling for all climates in the contiguous 48 states. They are electrically powered, but rather than generating heat through electric resistance (like your toaster), they move heat from the air outside the building to the inside. Even when it is cold outside, a compressor combined with refrigerant lines can extract heat from the air and deliver it indoors. The technology has been widely used for many years in cold climates and provides comfortable indoor heat for most homes down to -15°F. 

The efficiency of moving rather than creating heat means that it consumes 50-80% less energy than even the newest gas, oil, or propane furnaces. According to the EPA, residential and commercial heating represents approximately 13% of total U.S. emissions. Transitioning to air-source heat pumps could therefore reduce overall U.S. emissions by 5-10%, which would be a huge contribution from a single technology. And if the input energy is generated by increasingly lower carbon and eventually a carbon-free energy mix, the carbon emissions reductions can be substantial now (and grow larger over time).

As such, an important part of this beneficial electrification strategy is the ongoing “greening” of the input power, from generation sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear. (Despite recent plant closures, nuclear will likely be part of the clean energy future and the American Jobs Plan recognizes this.) This is part of a parallel process which could create a virtuous electrification cycle:

electrification-cycle

Converting a significant percentage of heating systems nationwide is a tall order, but there are some structural advantages that a sufficiently bold plan can leverage. The average lifespan of a traditional furnace is between 15 and 20 years. For central AC systems, the average lifespan is between 10 and 15 years. This means that every year around 5-7% of buildings are installing a new heating or AC system. Therefore, a long-term conversion plan would simply have to focus on the natural AC and heating system replacement cycle and ensure that a high percentage of this and every year's decision makers select heat pumps as their new equipment.

What do regional programs need to enable such a transformational change?

  1. Aggressive price negotiations to reduce the cost of equipment and installation
  2. Education and marketing for consumers
  3. Utility buy-in with rates and programs to align incentives
  4. Knowledgeable concierge services to help customers navigate the transition
  5. Manufacturer and distributor collaboration to ensure products are readily available

The opportunities that this technology offers to policy makers, consumers, utilities, and the environment are why Sagewell made beneficial electrification our core business strategy. We have launched numerous programs in this space to help utilities and communities grow the market share of both heat pumps and electric vehicles. We stand ready to put our shoulder to the wheel and help heat pumps become part of the solution set for America.

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