• Climate hub
  • 9 Jun 2022
  • 4 min read

How heat pumps can tackle climate change

By Nicholas Sheppard

As the world tries to rapidly cut its dependence on fossil fuels the heat pump is proving to be an unsung eco-warrior.

Right now, working away quietly in the background of your home, might be one of the tools that will help us fight climate change at the individual level: the humble heat pump.

In 2020 there were around 175 million heat pumps installed worldwide but the International Energy Agency (IEA) says more than 600 million are needed by 2030 for the world to remain on-track for net zero emissions by 2050.

Countries across the world are using discounts and other incentives to encourage growth and it’s starting to gain traction. Last year in the USA four million heat pumps were installed, up from 1.7m in 2012. In Europe there was a 21% increase in sales in Germany, 60% in Poland while in the UK sales doubled last year compared to 2020 and this year is  expected to triple 2020’s sales with the government aiming for 600,000 pumps to be installed by 2028. 

“Heat pumps are a few years behind electric vehicles but really deserve similar attention and could deliver very sizable reductions in emissions if we deployed them much more rapidly,” director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, Jan Rosenow, told Wired magazine.

Why heaters are the future of cooling

In the winter, a heat pump extracts heat from outdoor air, but it can be reversed in the summer to pump heat out, providing cooling. They are so efficient at converting power to heat that even if the power grid ran entirely on gas, heat pumps connected to it would use less than directly gas-powered furnaces do. The IEA estimates that they “could satisfy 90% of global heating needs with a lower carbon footprint than gas-fired condensing boilers.” 

New Zealand leading the way

Heat pumps are now the main type of heating used in Kiwi houses. According to the most recent Census, they can be found in 43% of New Zealand homes. The number of units increased from 179,000 units in 2020 to 237,000 units in 2021, a 32% increase, marking the single steepest yearly increase since records began in 2005.

To help Kiwis make more informed choices, a new Zoned Energy Rating Label indicates how much electricity a heat pump/air conditioner uses per year for heating and cooling, and how loud the unit is. Using a heat pump with four stars on the energy rating label generates 55% less emissions than a similar heat pump with only one star. As a positive trend, and further incentive, the average energy efficiency rating has risen from 2.8 to 3.9.

An important piece of the climate change puzzle

To ditch fossil fuels for good, we must combine a range of technologies and approaches. Heat pumps are an important piece in this broader puzzle. While New Zealand is making great strides in efficiently meeting domestic heating needs, it’s the industrial and commercial space where the real decarbonisation potential lies.

Will the UK warm up to heat pumps as an alternative to gas boilers

EECA administers the Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry (GIDI) fund, which aims to rapidly decarbonise industry by co-funding fuel-switching projects that take coal and diesel out of industrial process heat. Since GIDI launched in 2020, 18 of the 53 projects that have received co-funding were heat pump projects. Sarah Barnett, Senior Communications Advisor at EECA. As part of the Emissions Reduction Plan, the GIDI has been increased, with an additional $650 million over four years – and some of that money is likely to go to industrial and commercial heat pump projects.

“This will expand the number and type of projects that receive money,” Barnett says, “including projects that optimise low-emission fuel use, funding for electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure upgrades to support fuel-switching, and the early adoption of highly energy-efficient technologies.”

Grants for 80% towards the cost of a new heat pump

Heat pumps are only a microcosm of the fight against climate change, but on a global scale they can have a major impact in reducing energy use and helping the world go cold turkey on oil, coal and gas.

If you are interested in installing a heat pump, EECA administers the Government’s Warmer Kiwi Homes programme, which gives homeowners an 80% grant towards the cost of the new heat pump and 80% towards insulation. Find out if you are eligible and apply for a grant here.

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