YouHeat pumps are often overlooked in the context of climate change. Used to heat or cool homes and buildings, the appliances aren’t flashy like EVs, and have none of the imposing presence of a wind turbine. They won’t turn heads in the neighborhood like rooftop solar panels. These boxes, which are attached to a roof or wall outside, look about the same as AC units.
But as Europe faces off against Russia over Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the lowly, unloved heat pump has become a crucial tool in Europe’s all-hands-on-deck effort to cut its dependency on Russian gas. The logic is that a campaign to switch European homes to heat pumps would be more effective in the longer term than simply asking citizens to turn down their thermostats, and work faster than building more infrastructure to import natural gas from abroad, while also helping to speed the bloc’s progress on its climate goals.
If the E.U. doubled its installation in the following year, it could reduce Russian gas demand by 1.5 billion cubic metres (bcm). The E.U. reportedly estimates that if it doubles its installation in the following year, it will reduce Russian gas demand by 1.5 billion cubic meters per annum (bcm). commission. That’s only a small part of the 155bcm that the continent imported from Russia last year. But it’s also a milestone for environmentalists who have long supported those little heat systems that could—with heat pumps gone from being an afterthought of the energy transition to a key piece of green weaponry in a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.
At the moment, the E.U. About 40% of the EU’s natural gas comes from Russia, which is vital for heat home heating gas boilers. That dependence has propped up Russia’s economy for decades, and also serves as Putin’s geopolitical ace in the hole—if Russia turns off the gas taps going into next winter, heating shortages could roll across the continent.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaders in the E.U. government and member states have—belatedly—decided it’s essential to get off Russian gas as soon as possible. The European Commission presented a revised plan called REPowerEU last week. climate chief Frans Timmermans says will give the bloc “much-needed room to maneuver” by cutting its dependence on Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of this year. Among the policies suggested—like speeding up renewable energy development and increasing imports of liquified natural gas from the U.S. and Qatar—was a role for the oft-overlooked heat pump: the commission wants to double the continent’s yearly heat pump installations, building out 10 million units within the next five years.
There are two crucial things to know about heat pumps: they use electricity instead of gas, and they’re extremely efficient. Conventional electric heating systems draw a lot of power from the grid—you can easily trip a circuit breaker if you plug in a space heater. A heat pump, on the other hand, doesn’t actually generate heat; it just moves it around. The heat pump works in the same way as an air conditioner or refrigerator, except that it runs reversed. Cold liquid refrigerant picks up heat from the outside, changes phase to gas and then condenses back into liquid. Add that efficiency to the fact that every heat pump you install uses about half the energy of a gas boiler (even if the electricity it uses comes from a gas power plant), and you have a no-brainer device for climate action, and for prying off Russia’s vise grip over European energy supplies.
Jan Rosenow (European program director, Regulatory Assistance Project), an NGO that advises governments about the energy transition says that doubling installation in the following year is a lofty goal. European heat pump factories may have difficulty ramping up and could also be affected by a lack of global semiconductors. Modern heat pumps use integrated computers, just like other appliances.
Some experts suggest that Joe Biden might invoke the Defense Production Act in order to send additional heat pump to Europe. But U.S. systems might not be compatible with much of Europe’s building stock, since most American heat pumps are designed to work with air ducts built into the walls and ceilings of buildings, while European heat pumps tend to attach to systems that circulate hot water through radiators. Plus, E.U. lawmakers still have to actually implement policy to incentivize European homeowners and building operators to install more heat pumps—without which all those U.S. units would just stack up in warehouses from Brussels to Milan.
“The more realistic scenario is that we can double the deployment rate [of heat pumps] but not this year,” says Rosenow. “And then going forward, we need to [keep] growing a lot faster as well, and look beyond the immediate situation.” (He also notes that there’s been some confusion over the E.U.’s math—about 1.8 million units were installed in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. Even if that figure is doubled over many years, it should still bring the E.U. (Total of 10,000,000 heat pumps.
Many analysts believe that the E.U. is the best option for climate change. It is an ambitious plan that makes a number of positive steps in the right direction. This is also due to the fact that green technology has advanced. “The heat pump market and energy efficiency market is mature,” says Lisa Fischer, a program director at climate think tank E3G. “That’s a pretty significant difference [from past energy shocks].” But Frida Kieninger, director of E.U. Food and Water Watch claims that this plan may go even further and encourage efficiency measures like better insulation of European homes. This could help reduce Emissions. Russian gas is our main source of dependence.
Even with the big heat pump rollout and plans to import more natural gas from abroad, the E.U.’s new initiative still won’t fully free European countries from Russian gas within the next year, which is why they plan to fill up gas reserves before next winter to help blunt potential shocks or cutoffs. Some measures like increasing the use of coal and building new infrastructure with natural gas could cause green ambitions to be thrown into chaos, I have written earlier this month. The reason Europe’s in this position, experts say, is largely because policymakers didn’t take seriously the need to roll out green technologies in recent years when they had the chance.
“The E.U. can’t change its lack of action in the past,” says Fischer. “Now it’s just cobbling together all sorts of actions hoping that the mix and match will be enough.”
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