Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

Heat pumps are magical machines, working much like highly efficient, reversible air conditioners to move and concentrate heat into and out of buildings with 200 to 540 per cent efficiency. In contrast, fossil fuel-based heating systems, for example, oil or gas furnaces or boilers, can only release the energy stored in the fuel, so are a maximum of 98 per cent efficient. So, heat pumps make smart use of Canada’s clean electricity, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and save money.

Heat pumps are likely to be a big part of the upcoming Canada Green Buildings Strategy, expected to be released later this year. Last July, Natural Resources Canada circulated a discussion paper calling for “phased timelines […] when installation of oil and natural gas heating systems would no longer be permitted” stating “electric heat pumps are the right solution.

However, there are many myths that could hold back the policies we need to see heat pumps play their role in achieving net-zero emissions. This is why Efficiency Canada published a Canadian Heat Pump Myth-Buster. Here are five important myths we need to ensure do not get used as excuses for inaction on clean heating and cooling.

Myth 1: Heat pumps are a new and untested technology

Heat pump technology is very old! Heat pumps were invented in 1856 and use the same technology as refrigerators and air conditioners. Heat pump sales in Canada surpassed gas furnaces for the first time in 2021, with over 300,000 units shipped. They are the most common primary home heating system in New Brunswick (32 per cent) and Prince Edward Island (27 per cent) and are gaining momentum elsewhere in Canada.

Myth 2: Canada is too cold for heat pumps

Older generations of heat pumps had issues keeping up with Canadian winters, which gave them a bad reputation. What makes modern heat pumps different is their ability to maintain capacity and heat during cold outdoor temperatures due to major technological advancements, for example, variable speed motors and better refrigeration circuits, resulting in highly effective cold climate models supplying heat efficiently at very low temperatures (-31 C in a lab, -28.9 C in this study of real houses in Whitehorse).

Canada is lagging behind other even colder countries in heat pump adoption. For example, Estonia, Norway and Finland are colder than Canada and have three to six times more heat pumps per capita.

Myth 3: Electric grids don't have the capacity for heat pumps

Forty per cent of Canadian homes are heated with less-efficient non-heat pump electric systems (like electric baseboards or boilers). By adding a heat pump, annual electricity consumption for heating in these households would be up to three-quarters less, freeing up significant capacity for better uses.

There are many myths that could hold back the policies we need to see heat pumps play their role in achieving net-zero emissions, writes Sarah Riddell @EfficiencyCAN #cdnpoli #HeatPumps #EnergyEfficiency #RetrofitCanada23

Heat pumps also won’t be installed all at once, but over time as old furnaces and air conditioners fail over the next 15 to 20 years, giving electricity system planners the ability to plan ahead and respond.

What policymakers should be thinking about now is how to increase the level of electricity savings to make room for heat pumps, and how to reduce peak demands during extreme cold periods with solutions like better building insulation, smart demand-side management, and hybrid heating options.

Myth 4: In provinces with dirty grids, heat pumps don’t lower emissions

The GHG intensity of the electricity grid varies greatly in Canada, ranging from 2 g CO2e/kWh in Manitoba to 730 g CO2e/kWh in Saskatchewan, which has fuelled debate over whether switching to a heat pump from a gas furnace lowers emissions in provinces where electricity production is dominated by fossil fuel combustion.

The International Energy Agency finds that heat pumps still reduce GHGs by at least 20 per cent compared to gas, even with emissions‐intensive electricity. Similarly, a study in Nature concluded that the average heat pump would have lower life-cycle emissions than an average new gas boiler, as long as electricity emissions intensity was less than 1,000 gCO2e/kWh — that’s higher than any province or territory in Canada.

With the federal government targeting net-zero emissions electricity by 2035, the emissions savings achieved by heat pumps will continue to improve as the grid becomes increasingly cleaner. In the meantime, it is possible for a heat pump coupled with a fuel backup to switch between heating sources based on whichever has the lower emissions intensity (and costs) at a certain time or temperature.

So, there’s no real benefit to waiting for the grid to be fully clean to encourage heat pump adoption. Heating systems are generally only replaced every 15 to 20-plus years, meaning a fossil-fuel based heating system installed now would continue to be a source of direct emissions until about 2040.

Myth 5: Canada would be alone if requirements for cleaner and more efficient heating were introduced

Policymakers taking climate change seriously are introducing clean heating requirements. Austria, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway all have bans on oil and gas boiler installation in new buildings by 2023.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy administer ENERGY STAR®, the most widely used energy efficiency label in the United States and Canada. They now propose sunsetting ENERGY STAR® certification for residential furnaces and central air conditioners effective Dec. 30, 2024, in favour of heat pumps due to their potential “to deliver energy-efficiency gains, pollution reduction and cost-savings to consumers.” The Canadian government has previously made ENERGY STAR® standards a minimum requirement for heating systems.

Heat pumps’ share of home heating will need to almost double by 2030 for Canada to reach its climate targets. The upcoming Green Building Strategy needs to ensure all Canadians can access heat pumps to have cosier, affordable, and greener homes and businesses.

Sarah Riddell is the policy research associate, clean heat, at Efficiency Canada. Prior to joining Efficiency Canada, she worked in commercial energy management, working to decarbonize federal buildings in British Columbia and the Yukon. Sarah has a BSc in agricultural and environmental economics from McGill University, with a particular interest in the economics of climate change.

Keep reading

We're getting ready to transition off our gas furnaces in favour of a heat pump. But I do have one question that troubles my brain. If we achieve 100% heat pump what point will the pumps make the outside world colder in the winter........and hotter in the summer???
I kind of understand how it extracts cool air from the hot air outside........but could heat pumps at some point make the outside summer air even hotter??? We won't be able to shelter from hot house earth, inside our heat pump cooled houses....or will we???

On one hand, that probably does and will happen. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the summer part already does with normal air conditioners. Not so much by taking colder air from the outside and pulling it in, leaving only warmer air, more by just heating up some of the air that's on the outside. Air conditioners obey thermodynamics, after all--they don't create cold from nothing, they make cold inside and balance it by making heat outside. It's like the way fridges have heat radiators at the back.

I live in a Strata Property (townhouse) in BC. Like most older starts, the bylaws for our development prohibit the installation of air conditioners (a completely different animal than a heat pump, but most people who haven't looked into heat pumps don't understand the distinction). Typically these prohibitions were added because of the noise of A/C units. Because of a medical condition my wife suffers from we were able to get a medical exemption under human rights duty to accommodate. The system has made a huge change in our indoor space.

With A/C, the temperature inside reaches the set point of the thermostat, the unit activates at full blast, removes a slug of heat to the outside unit, then shuts off. This results in a number of issues. First, because they operate in an on/off mode only, the noise of the compressor (that's what the external unit is) and the fan operate at a very high noise level. Secondly, the sudden power draw is a spike in electricity demand, something the supply may have trouble handling. Third is a maintenance issue. Because the compressor-fan assembly cycles at full load from start to finish of each cycle, it stresses all the operating components.

Modern heat pumps, by contrast, operate at noise levels a fraction of A/C and have variable speed function. As a result, they aren't (typically) as loud as the portable A/C units many people have exhausting from windows, they draw less of a load than A/C, and have a longer operational life. The latter in spite of being used year round.

Now all we have to do is convince our provincial government to override the antiquated bylaws embedded in older strata council bylaws.

P.S. Between adding extra insulation in our attic and having a heat pump our electricity bill has gone from slightly over $110/month to less than $65.