America Needs To Install A Lot More Heat Pumps
In order to meet its climate goals, America needs to replace 2.4 million fossil fuel furnaces every year for the next 27 years.
There are 125 million homes in America. Collectively, the energy they burn every year puts more planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere than virtually every country on Earth. Our homes alone emit more carbon-dioxide each year than the entire nation of Germany.
But not all appliances in a home consume the same amount of energy. While we see and interact with our lights, phone chargers, and refrigerators everyday, these products use relatively little energy. Meanwhile, the furnaces and air conditioners we rarely see are responsible for about half of the energy used in a given year. In harsher climates that number can easily reach two-thirds.
America’s furnaces and air conditioners are responsible for more climate pollution than the entire economies of Saudi Arabia and Brazil respectively.
As I wrote in Part One of this series, there’s a climate solution that tackles this country-sized problem. It’s called a heat pump, and it’s basically a super-efficient air conditioner that can turn into a space heater in the winter. (Here’s an article I wrote about how heat pumps work for those curious).
Between now and 2050, we need every home and appliance to run on clean, renewable electricity. It’s a daunting task, but at a conceptual level, it’s straightforward. We need to “electrify everything.” The keystone of this project will be getting our home heating systems to run on electrons, not scorched carbon.
Unlike many other clean energy technologies, heat pumps have been around, in more or less their current form, for decades. The technology is far from a household name in most parts of the country, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be starting from zero in the effort to electrify everything.
In some southern states, like South Carolina and Alabama, more than a third of homes already use a heat pump for their space heating and cooling. In most parts of the country, it’s now cheaper to install a heat pump in a new home than a gas furnace and air conditioner. As a result, 40% of new homes built today use a heat pump as their primary source of heat.
But most homes in America aren’t in the South; and given the urgency of climate change, we can’t just wait 50 or 100 years for our existing housing stock to turnover. Electrifying everything will require retrofitting tens of millions of existing homes over the next few decades.
Recently I asked what I thought was a simple question: How is America doing in the effort to replace its fossil fuel-powered furnaces? I found very little information that answered this question. So I dove down the rabbit hole in search of answers and found myself many spreadsheets deep in government data.
I’m happy to share that I’ve emerged from the rabbit hole with answers. In this post, I’ll share what I learned. I’ll cover the following:
How Americans currently heat their homes
How home heating has changed since 1940
How many heat pumps were installed over the last decade
How many heat pumps need to be installed by 2050
The state replacing its fossil fuel heaters faster than any other