Commercial Buildings Have a Massive Carbon Footprint and Heat Pumps Can Help

Heat pumps can play a role in reducing greenhouse gasses. Find out why heat pumps use less energy and create fewer emissions than fossil fuel powered heating systems. 

Electric vehicles, solar panels, home battery packs, and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but heat pumps can also play a significant role in this process. By switching to heat pumps, commercial and residential buildings reduce their demand for energy, and when the electricity to power heat pumps comes from renewable sources, that helps to further decarbonization efforts even more.

Heating and Greenhouse Gasses

In Massachusetts, commercial buildings are responsible for generating more greenhouse gasses than residential buildings or industrial facilities, and this pattern is consistent all over the country. For example, in New York City, 42% of greenhouse gasses come from commercial buildings; a lot of that is tied to heating because most furnaces and boilers run on fossil fuels, which produce a lot of greenhouse gases.

Benefits of Electric Heat Pumps

Switching to electric heat pumps reduces the amount of energy needed to heat a building. Generally, gas furnaces produce less than one unit of heat for each unit of energy consumed, but heat pumps produce two to four units of heat for every unit of energy consumed. Compared to furnaces or baseboard heating, heat pumps cut energy consumption in half over the course of the equipment’s life time, and they have the ability to reduce carbon emissions by 46% to 54%.  

On top of that, heat pumps run on electricity, and if the electricity is sourced from renewable energy, that helps further decarbonization efforts; Massachusetts is already making this shift. In 2017, the state generated less than 4% of its electricity from coal and over two-thirds from natural gas. Wind and solar are also generating more electricity — in fact, the state had 1,867 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity in early 2018, and that number continues to rise. 

Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Heat Pumps

The Rocky Mountain Institute reports that eliminating the burning of fossil fuels is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gasses by 75% or more, and many homeowners are already making this change. In 2006, 36% of homes in Massachusetts used fuel oil for heating space and water, but by 2016, only 27% of homes relied on fuel oil for their heating needs.  

In New York, the governor is committed to improving energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of the state’s residents, and as part of those efforts, he has set a target of meeting at least 25% of the state’s heating needs with heat pumps. 

What Are Heat Pumps?

Heat pumps have been around since the 1940s, and they have been popular in relatively warm climates for decades. Over the last few years, heat pump technology has evolved so that they now work efficiently in cold climates. Essentially, they use the same technology as air conditioners, but they can work in reverse to heat a home.  

Generally, heat pumps consist of an outdoor unit with a compressor and a condenser along with one or more indoor units, but in some cases, both the interior and exterior components can be housed in a single unit. Unlike boilers or furnaces, heat pumps don’t generate heat. Instead, they move heat from one area to another.  

During the winter, the heat pump pulls heat from the outside air and moves it inside. That may seem counterintuitive because outdoor temps are so low that it’s hard to imagine the air harboring any heat, but the heat pump finds the warmth even in sub-zero temperatures. During the summer, the heat pump pulls warm air outside and leaves cool air inside. While most heat pumps are air sourced, there are also geothermal and water-source heat pumps which pull heat from the ground or water respectively.

Challenges to Decarbonization

While heat pumps are likely to play a large role in decarbonization, there are also a number of challenges, including aging buildings with limited space that require extensive retrofitting to accommodate heat pumps, and unaffordable upfront costs to make the change from natural gas heating systems to heat pumps.  

The electrical systems of many old buildings can’t support heat pumps, but if a building has window air conditioners, they can be replaced with heat pumps as both run on 220/240 volts. Because of that, commercial building owners may want to consider putting in heat pumps when replacing air conditioning systems, gutting the building, or upgrading its electrical system, and of course, with new construction. 

Dealing with Increased Electrical Demand 

As commercial buildings make the change to heat pumps, the demand for electricity is going to increase. In most areas, the electrical grid can only handle about as much energy as homes and businesses use to run their air conditioners during the hottest part of the summer. To prepare for this change, energy companies need to harness wind and bring more renewable energy to the grid. 

Charging elevated carbon pricing rates can also help to encourage people and businesses to start using heat pumps. Electrical companies should create new rates to manage increased demand, and they should encourage customers to consume electricity during off peak hours. Basically, to ensure the change to heat pumps is cost effective and has the largest impact on greenhouse gas emissions, electricity needs to become cheaper and greener over the next 20 years. 

Encouraging Heat Pump Installation

Unfortunately, for both businesses and homes, the cost of installing a new heat pump can be prohibitive, especially if a commercial building needs to be retrofitted. To encourage people to make the leap, governments and utilities need to find ways to promote heat pump technology. To that end, in Massachusetts, Mass Save offers several rebates for buying new heat pumps and for making the change from heating systems that use fossil fuels to heat pumps.   

In California, when homeowners choose a heat pump for a newly constructed home, they save $1,500 upfront thanks to rebates and hundreds of dollars in electrical costs every year. Rebates and incentives should focus on commercial buildings that use propane or oil for their heating, because these structures produce 20% of the emissions from heating space and water.  

If you’re concerned about the cost of your energy bills and your home or business’s carbon footprint, you should consider investing in a heat pump. To help with the larger effort of decarbonization, you may want to support initiatives that encourage people to invest in heat pumps, while also addressing some of the core challenges to making the shift to heat pumps.  

Ready to learn more about heat pumps? Then, contact us at N.E.T.R., Inc. today. We look forward to helping you reduce the carbon footprint of your home or commercial building. 

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