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Residential Heat Pumps Could Cut U.S. Energy Consumption In Half

In November of last year, some of the greatest minds and biggest influencers in the global energy sector gathered in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for the 27th annual Conference of the Parties (COP27) to discuss climate change. The two week conference was crowded with lofty goals, emerging technologies, and innovative approaches, but one of the most effective strategies for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions was ignored almost entirely: energy efficiency.

As the World Economic Forum wrote in a report from the sidelines of COP27, “the greenest energy is the energy we don’t use.” But in another sense, the energy that we don’t use is actually one of the biggest problems of the day in the energy sector. Fossil fuel production is responsible for a massive amount of ‘rejected energy,’ which is “wasted primary energy, or energy which serves no useful purpose in our society or economy,” according to a definition from CleanTechnica. “Virtually all of the rejected energy is waste heat from burning fossil fuels. A tiny fraction is transmission losses for electricity.”

Eliminating or minimizing energy waste is therefore an essential component of energy efficiency, and, in turn, an essential component of meeting global climate goals. One promising avenue for increasing energy efficiency, which is increasingly gaining traction in scientific and political spheres, is through the use of heat pumps.

In terms of residential energy use, which represents approximately 12% of United States energy consumption (as per the Lawrence Livermore National Library (LLNL) figure provided above), the lion’s share goes to heating and cooling. Together, these two uses account for 55% of domestic energy demand, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA). Heating, in particular, is the biggest source of energy rejection, primarily through waste heat. This is where heat pumps come in.

Heat pumps are simple, effective, and relatively easy and cheap to install. More importantly, they’re extremely energy efficient, sourcing about two thirds of their energy from the surrounding environment and just one third from electricity. They work by digging just 10 feet under the surface of the Earth – often under your driveway or in your backyard – where the ambient temperature is more or less constant year-round and can be used to heat or cool air, or to make hot water, thereby providing a highly efficient, low-emissions component of your home’s cooling and heating system.

Heat pumps could also be used in commercial buildings, greatly reducing that sector’s approximately 9% share of total U.S. energy consumption. Applying heat pumps in industrial buildings, however, is a bit trickier. “A lot of industrial heat is above 200° Celsius, the current reasonable limit for industrial heat pumps, and well above the 100° limit for current mature heat pump technologies,” explained a recent article from CleanTechnica. So heat pumps don’t provide a silver bullet solution for all of our heating and cooling needs, but they could go a long way toward reducing energy demand.

According to calculations from that CleanTechnica article, with strategic installation of heat pumps, the United States energy requirements could be cut in half. “Instead of having to replace all energy services, we only have to replace the portion of heat we can’t get from the environment for free,” the article argues. “Our economies [would] have enormous room to grow useful outputs without increasing energy services at all.” This would take massive pressure off of the government and public alike to fund a massive expansion of clean energy which, in many ways, we aren’t structurally and systemically ready for.

Already, there is a lot of chatter about energy pumps. In the United States, the Biden administration’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act has earmarked $500 million in tax breaks for U.S. residents who install heat pumps in their houses. Tesla, often an industry trendsetter, has talked about getting into the heating up heat pump market. In Europe, annual sales of heat pumps have gone through the roof since the start of the energy crisis spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to some figures, heat pumps have already prevented 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe. All of this is a promising development, but the kind of climate-saving heat pump revolution described by CleanTechnica is going to require a takeover of epic proportions that we have yet to see.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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