Heat Pumps: One Of The Biggest And Least Understood Tools Against Climate Change

Highlights :

  • About 14 per cent of single-family homes use heat pumps for heating, while about 20 per cent of them use the technology for cooling

The world is tilted towards the notion of preventing the climate change. Climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic activities and associated harmful Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The use of fossil fuels to derive energy is the leading contributor toward emissions of GHGs. One of the major uses of energy is managing temperature – heating and cooling.

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The energy that we use in our homes is responsible for a billion tons of emissions per year, which is about 20% of emissions in America. The use of heaters and ACs require a lot of energy, mostly derived from fossil fuels to do the job and, hence, contribute majorly in global GHG emissions and climate change. For instance, if our homes were a country, it would rank fourth in annual emissions just behind India and ahead of Russia. Most of it, about 80 per cent, is because of just three things Space heating (about 50 per cent), Water heating (about 20 per cent), and Air conditioning (about 10 per cent). Heating especially is a huge contributor to energy in the Northern Hemisphere in particular, hence the case to know heat pumps better.

So, how exactly do heat pumps help minimize this problem? While innovations and new technologies are being focused on to reduce the GHG emissions as much as possible, no one technology may be panacea to all the ills. Similarly, although heat pumps may not be the ultimate solution, but they can definitely contribute towards reducing the emissions and preventing climate change. How would they do that? What are heat pumps?

What Are Heat Pumps?

The term ‘Heat Pumps‘ refers to a group of technologies that incorporate HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) devices that provide heat energy that is transferred from a source of heat or warmth to a destination called a heat sink, effectively ‘pumping‘ warmth from one place to another.

In simplest terms, a heat pump is a device that moves heat from the outdoors to the indoors, or vice versa, depending on your needs. For instance, if a heat pump is being used inside a room to make it cool, it will absorb the heat in the room and will release it outdoors with the help of an outdoor compressor. In heating mode, the heat pump will absorb heat from outside and release it indoors.

About 14 per cent of single-family homes use heat pumps for heating, while about 20 per cent of them use the technology for cooling.

How Does A Heat Pump Work?

Just like a refrigerator, a heat pump evaporates refrigerant at low pressure to absorb heat from its surroundings and then condenses the refrigerant at high pressure on the other coil to release the heat absorbed earlier. Similarly, they work in reverse manner as well.

They are quite efficient and perform well. Even when temperatures go down to -18°C (0°F), heat pumps can still retain 85% of the warmth they had at 21°C (70°F).

So, it’s safe to say, a heat pump is not only eco friendly but also one of the most efficient tools to combat climate change out there. While it may not be panacea to all ills as the technology has its limitations along with so many benefits, it is one of the tools which may shape the present and future of energy use.

Utility

Their primary function is space heating through radiators, under floor heating systems, or warm air convectors. They can also be used to heat water for use in homes or business. Most heat pumps have fantastic climate control capabilities and provide space cooling by simply reversing the process of space heating. In many ways, a heat pump is functionally the same as conventional air conditioners. It’s basically an air conditioner that can reverse itself.

What Makes Heat Pumps Eco-Friendly?

Other temperature control systems generally heat up or cool down the surrounding air using the fuel energy. Whereas, a heat pump doesn’t burn fuel, it simply moves heat from one place to another; therefore, it does not use fuel. However, a heat pump does use some amount of electricity to run. it uses a small amount of energy to move (not to heat or cool air) heat from one location to another. But they are highly efficient. They have an average COP (Coefficient of Performance) figures of 2.5 or more. In simpler terms, to achieve 2.5 kilowatts of heating or cooling power, they use an average of less than one kilowatt of electricity. On contrary, a conventional heating system – electric fire or gas boiler – generally has a COP of less than one.

Hence, while it may be too optimistic to call it a renewable technology, but comparing them to systems like ACs, they fare much better when it comes to impacting the environment.

Are There Any Threats To Environment?

Heat pumps, like every other renewable technology, require energy to produce and raw materials to build them. Heat pumps also inflict initial ‘cost’ to our environment in their material extraction. Further, the energy they consume during the manufacturing process also comes from the conventional processes. On recycling metals and refrigerant gas (working fluid) components within the heat pump at the end of its economic life, this may even help to mitigate this initial environmental cost. Needless to say, unlike a non-renewable energy source it will have paid for itself many times over during its lifetime.

While understanding its impact on environment, it is essential to consider its working fluid, HFC (Hydrofluorocarbon) refrigerant, as well. HFC has a potential to damage the environment more than CO2. Though, HFC refrigerant is in itself is ‘ozone-friendly’. But their leakage from the from the unit is highly unlikely.

Cost Saving

As per The Renewable Energy Hub UK, a heat pump can save costs for oil and gas when used in the correct type of property. Accordingly, using a heat pump can save a person up to £240 a year. But savings depend a lot on what the household is already using. Take for example, for a household that relies on gas heating, the savings can be in a range of £1315 to £1975.

On the other hand, though they may save fuel, heat pumps are not exactly cheap to buy. For instance, air source heat pumps (that are feasible for households) can cost anything between £5000 and £8000. Furthermore, there may also be some additional costs while installing heat pumps. Installing insulation systems makes it work more efficiently.

Are Heat Pumps The Ultimate Solution?

Heat pumps are not the ultimate solution and definitely not the only solution. Yet, they are pretty close to the universal techno-fix for the world’s home and commercial heating needs. As per IEA, Heat pumps could satisfy 90% of global heating needs with a lower carbon footprint than gas-fired condensing boilers. They prove to be of great use in colder climates, like Nordic countries. In such climates they exhibit high emissions-reduction potential.

Market Opportunity

There is a huge market opportunity for heat pumps as they are not that famous globally. In spite of so many merits, very tiny percentage of households employs the technology. It is indeed one of the least understood and one of the most efficient eco-friendly tools out there. Its larger adoption has still a long way to go. Thus, it provides open field for new startups. The governments, world over, have so far neglected the technology that is still far away from the recognition it deserves.

Its significance may be easily understood in the context of on-going Ukraine-Russia war. Many nations depend on Russian gas and oil. Switching for heat pumps will reduce the need of oil and gas by significant amount, apart from cutting down carbon emissions.

Decarbonizing won’t just happen through one technology. It will need an approach that amalgamates multiple technologies, policies, and interventions. Technologies like heat pumps may be simpler yet powerful tools in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. We don’t need some rocket-science all the time. Whatever helps in efficient manner is always welcome.

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Junaid Shah

Junaid holds a Master of Engineering degree in Construction & Management. Being a civil engineering postgraduate and using his technical prowess, he has channeled his passion for writing in the environmental niche.

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