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Heat Pumps Will Change Everything—and Not Enough

It’s a long-term solution for climate change with plenty of short-term problems.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
A heat pump stands outside a property as part of a green housing project in Huddersfield recently retrofitted by Kirklees Council on March 16, 2022 in Huddersfield, England.
A heat pump stands outside a property as part of a green housing project in Huddersfield recently retrofitted by Kirklees Council on March 16, 2022 in Huddersfield, England.
A heat pump stands outside a property as part of a green housing project in Huddersfield recently retrofitted by Kirklees Council on March 16, 2022 in Huddersfield, England. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Heat pumps are increasingly hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough technology, offering a much more cost-effective and energy-efficient way to keep homes and offices warm. But it’s not yet clear whether the political and economic conditions for reaching their potential—a ramping-up of their manufacture and incentives for their installation—can be met in time to slow climate change or wean European countries off of Russian gas.

Europe depends on Russia for more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs, and this gas is mainly fed into gas boilers to heat buildings in cold European winters. Germany is the biggest European consumer of Russian gas and is reliant on Russia for half of its requirements. The supply of heat is still the largest consumer of natural gas, ahead of industry, and emits a quarter of total greenhouse gases in the country. 

If Germany and other European governments want to stop filling Russia’s war chest as Moscow’s assault on Ukraine continues—and to prepare for the eventuality that Russia might turn off the taps (as it has already cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria)—then they need to urgently transform their energy strategy. Energy experts say the urgency to be independent of Russia must not merely substitute one fossil fuel producer with another but usher Europe toward a cleaner, greener future. They argue that heat pumps—if adopted in conjunction with other measures for an overall energy transition—can substantially reduce dependency on Russia and help save the planet by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

Heat pumps are increasingly hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough technology, offering a much more cost-effective and energy-efficient way to keep homes and offices warm. But it’s not yet clear whether the political and economic conditions for reaching their potential—a ramping-up of their manufacture and incentives for their installation—can be met in time to slow climate change or wean European countries off of Russian gas.

Europe depends on Russia for more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs, and this gas is mainly fed into gas boilers to heat buildings in cold European winters. Germany is the biggest European consumer of Russian gas and is reliant on Russia for half of its requirements. The supply of heat is still the largest consumer of natural gas, ahead of industry, and emits a quarter of total greenhouse gases in the country. 

If Germany and other European governments want to stop filling Russia’s war chest as Moscow’s assault on Ukraine continues—and to prepare for the eventuality that Russia might turn off the taps (as it has already cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria)—then they need to urgently transform their energy strategy. Energy experts say the urgency to be independent of Russia must not merely substitute one fossil fuel producer with another but usher Europe toward a cleaner, greener future. They argue that heat pumps—if adopted in conjunction with other measures for an overall energy transition—can substantially reduce dependency on Russia and help save the planet by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

Instead of generating heat by burning gas, as in gas boilers, a heat pump merely moves the heat around to do the same job. In summers it removes heat from the air inside and pushes cool air back, and in winters it does the opposite. It looks a lot like an air conditioner and runs on electricity, but comparatively much less than conventional heating systems. 

“In very basic terms, a heat pump is a device that uses a small amount of energy to move heat from one location to another—which is a crucial difference to, say, gas or oil boilers that need to burn fuel in order to create heat,” explained Maria Pastukhova, a senior policy advisor with E3G, a German think tank that works on climate change.

“The potential within the EU to reduce gas consumption by shifting residential heating to heat pumps is enormous, as this sector still largely relies on fossil fuel-based solutions,” Pastukhova said. “Installed capacity of space heating in the EU in 2017 was 83 percent fossil-based and 17 percent renewable (including biomass),” she said, adding that moving from gas-based heating systems to heat pumps and to district heating powered by renewable electricity “could reduce gas consumption in heating by approximately 80 percent.”

Installing heat pumps with the help of a contractor and refurbishing the building to improve its insulation imposes immediate costs. But in the longer run the pumps save money by using heat in the environment to change temperatures indoors rather than combusting fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases that cause global warming and can be volatile in price depending on the vagaries of geopolitics and whims of oil and gas producers. 

The Wuppertal Institute in Germany recently carried out a study commissioned by Greenpeace that concluded that heat pumps can be transformative. There are currently just over 20 million heating systems in buildings in Germany. The study proposes a subsidy for at least 12 million heat pumps and 70 million square meters of solar thermal systems. It also recommends a ban on the installation of new oil and gas heating systems from 2024 to discourage expansion of gas-related infrastructure in the medium term. The idea is for heat pumps to run on electricity produced from renewable sources to make them even more environmentally friendly. 

The Wuppertal study further recommends governmental regulations that create a binding force to accelerate the transition and state funding that makes it economically attractive both for businesses manufacturing heat pumps and for those investing in solar and wind farms, as well as for those who purchase these pumps. 

Many environmentalists believe heat pumps are revolutionary and governments must push for them without any further delay. The American environmentalist Bill McKibben has strongly suggested that U.S. President Joe Biden invoke the Defense Production Act and have American manufacturers mass-produce heat pumps to ship to Europe and enable European governments to reduce their energy reliance on Russia. 

The International Energy Agency, which works with countries around the world to shape energy policies, has proposed a 10-point plan to the EU to reduce consumption of Russian gas and has called for speeding up deployment of heat pumps. Doubling installation of heat pumps would reduce gas use by 2 billion cubic meters within the first year, requiring a total additional investment of 15 billion euros, the organization said. Even though that is a fraction of the 155 billion cubic meters of gas that the continent imported from Russia last year, it sets the continent on a plausible path to achieving energy sufficiency and sustainability in buildings in the medium term.

But the system has some limitations and bottlenecks in implementation. Manfred Fischedick, the scientific managing director of the Wuppertal Institute, told Foreign Policy that to achieve a minimum efficiency standard in old houses, significant renovation was a “necessary prerequisite for the installation of a heat pump.” Those short-term costs are also often not acknowledged by heat pump advocates.

Fishedick said renovation costs can be mitigated by refurbishing homes incrementally in consultation with a qualified contractor. But that raises an even bigger obstacle, according to Fischedick, for the speedy implementation of pumps at scale: the lack of trained professionals who can guide people through the process of installing them and advise on the right pump according to the size of their house and climatic conditions. 

Pedro Guertler, an expert on heat pumps with the German think tank E3G, said community adoption of heat pumps—whether individually at scale in a neighborhood, or communally through shared ground source heat pumps across multiple buildings—will be essential to drive scale up and costs down. 

“Local governments need to be empowered to provide clear planning to residents about the future of heating (and involve residents in the planning). This is underway in the Netherlands and Scotland, for example,” he told Foreign Policy. Guertler added that governments must have “one-stop shops” in different areas, “where households and businesses can get clear, government endorsed advice on how to green their properties” and find trusted heat pump installers. He said the advice should be “nationally consistent, but locally tailored.”

Although there is also concern around the efficiency of the heat pumps in extremely cold temperatures—the colder it is, the less heat there is for the pumps to move around—Fischedick said that can be overcome with a second heating system, which is still more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than relying entirely on fossil fuels.

“It is right that efficiency depends on the temperature difference between the ambient air (as heat source) and the targeted supply temperature. That’s why in very cold regions very often heat pumps are combined with a second heating system that covers the temperature extremes,” Fischedick said. “The typical combination is a heat pump with a simple direct heating element (which functions very simply following the immersion heater principle). Other options are combination with gas (e.g. the old gas boiler).”

Environmentalists will have to accept that there is no quick way to end gas consumption and or completely switch energy consumption to renewables. In the near term, politicians’ biggest concern is to ensure there is enough oil and gas to keep homes warm and industry running. In that quest, the EU has decided to ship 50 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas each year from such countries as Qatar, Egypt, and the United States, and another 10 billion cubic meters from such countries as Azerbaijan, Algeria, and Norway to replace a portion of Russian supplies. In addition, the EU has decided to delay the closure of four nuclear reactors, while Britain has announced it will build up to eight more. 

But ramping up production of green energy with more heat pumps, issuing permits for solar and wind energy farms more quickly, and training people to assist with the transition are the only long-term options for achieving energy independence and solving climate change alike.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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