Climate journalism is urgent. Help US raise $125,000 by December's end.
With the Trudeau Liberals clearly signalling their retreat from the front lines of carbon pricing, they need to find some higher ground they can actually defend. The humble heat pump, and the attempts by pro-fossil fuel interests to confuse the public about its costs and benefits, would be a good place to start fighting.
Heat pumps are able to both cool and heat a home with a single system, and they’re an increasingly attractive option in places like Vancouver and the Maritimes, where climate change is transforming air conditioning from a luxury into a necessity. Even on the Prairies, where colder winters (and a fondness for fossil fuels) make them a less obvious fit, the math around newer models is starting to turn in their favour — especially as summer cooling demand continues to rise there as well.
On their own merits, and in a culture that didn’t transform technologies associated with climate change into political litmus tests, the new generation of heat pumps wouldn’t attract the attention of our elected leaders. Instead, there’s an entirely predictable campaign against them already well underway, one that clearly seeks to undermine interest in them and delay their implementation as long as possible.
Take Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who seems determined to go to almost any length to defend the status quo and the oil and gas industry’s place in it. In an interview with CTV’s Vassy Kapelos, she said: “As I understand it, you can’t get insurance on a heat pump system anywhere that goes below -20 C." But as with so many things related to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Smith does not actually understand it. Yes, some insurers might require a backup system of some sort, whether it’s electric baseboards or gas, but there’s no universal policy on it. And since heat pumps are powered by electricity, an electric backup is an obvious (and in many provinces, pre-existing) solution.
Ah, but what about the cost? That was the argument Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke made on a recent episode of The Curse of Politics, suggesting that “heat pumps don’t work super fantastic, especially in the colder parts of this country, and they’re very expensive compared to something like a natural gas furnace.” This is a familiar refrain among natural gas enthusiasts, who are disproportionately found within the conservative political family. Even Laureen Harper, the former prime minister’s wife, chimed in on the issue. “Before you install heat pumps en masse, maybe you should talk to someone who has run one,” she tweeted. “Just saying.”
That’s exactly what the good folks at the Canadian Climate Institute did in preparing a recent report on the costs of various home heating and cooling technologies. It found heat pumps are the lowest-cost option in two-thirds of all cases they modelled, using deliberately conservative assumptions for gas and electricity prices. They’re the biggest winner in places like Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal and Halifax, where the math for single-family homes and townhouses (both old and newer construction) leans decisively in favour of heat pumps. In Toronto, for example, the owner of a townhouse built in 1980 would save $310 per year by installing a heat pump with electric backup over a new gas system with a separate air conditioner. Installing the same heat pump system in a 1940-vintage Halifax house, meanwhile, would save the owner more than $1,000 annually.
There are cases where heat pumps aren’t a good fit, from large multi-family buildings to new houses in ultra-cold climates like Edmonton (although even there, a heat pump with a gas backup comes very close to being comparable in cost). And the Canadian Climate Institute’s math depends on the existence of a carbon tax on natural gas heating, which just became a much more tenuous assumption.
The existence of rebates and subsidies also informs their calculations, and it’s reasonable to assume a future Conservative federal government would decide to get rid of those as well. At a moment where global demand for natural gas is on the verge of rolling over, conservative governments — especially those beholden to provinces like Alberta — will almost certainly try to interfere with the adoption of technologies driving its decline.
The current government has a little less than two years left in its mandate, if the current supply-and-confidence agreement with the NDP holds. They should use that time to ensure the momentum behind heat pumps in Canada is irreversible, just as it already is for technologies like wind and solar. Yes, they're faced with an all-too-familiar calculus on climate-related issues, where experts tend to line up on one side of the issue and self-interested amateurs on the other. As they’ve seen with the carbon tax, facts don’t have nearly the clout in our political discourse as they ought to, and self-interested amateurs can win the day with oversimplifications and strategic fear-mongering. But if the Trudeau Liberals want to salvage some part of their climate legacy, they’ll need to make this a hill they're willing to die on.
The federal government wants to get more heat pumps installed in homes across Canada, especially in vote-rich Atlantic Canada. Not surprisingly, Conservatives are already trying to confuse Canadians about their costs and benefits.