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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.

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There needs to be policies that are not punitive/less strict for the coldest parts of the country. Northern Qubec/Ontario, the Prairie provinces, Yukon/Nunavut cannot rely on heat pumps. A lot of these areas don't even get warm enough that air conditioning is a necessity. Better home insulation is a better option than fossil fuel elimination in these circumstances.

Good home insulation and air tight construction is of course a must everywhere in Canada. Cold weather heat pumps work even in the north of Canada and are worth while even if they are hardly ever or not at all used for air conditioning.
We have to get off fossil fuels. Transporting ff to the north is very expensive and uses more ff to bring it there. Local renewable energy production with battery storage will be required.

All that is changing. In just a few short years Vancouver, Calgary, St. John's Newfoundland are now so hot in summer that AC is needed. Likewise, newer cold climate heat pumps (with back up) can be used in any part of Canada including northern regions.

Cold weather heat pumps are now available.
This calls for celebration. They work well even in Alaska.

Another option under "heat pumps" is the geothermal type, which hardly ever gets any acknowledgement. I had a ground-source heat pump system installed in 1993. Diamond drilling permitted access to heat from rocks underground in my case, but closed loops buried in thick enough soil can also be used. It's not dependent on outside air temperature. Yes, it cost more (especially the drilling) but I've been saving ever since. People are already paying more for insurance for houses, cars, food, etc. in part because of climate change, which has caused or exacerbated various natural events. It's only going to get worse. Maybe people should stop making all their decisions on whether they will save money up front. Perhaps governments can facilitate the move to heat pumps by offering to pay for (or supplement part of the cost) the switch to some form of heat pump, with the proviso that the homeowner has to pay back the loan on a generous payback schedule, using a formula based on expected energy cost savings. Sell your house, and the payback schedule commitment transfers to the new owner. This way, with relatively minimal costs (over time), the governments can achieve the switch to more efficient heating without significant hardship to individual home owners.

My understanding is that the geothermal type heat pumps are also good for larger buildings; seems they scale well.

Conservatives in Canada are becoming just as bad as the Republicans in the USA. It is bad enough that Canada has not done enough under Justine Trudeau, but it will be game over if the snake oil salesman Pierre Poilievre ever gets elected as PM. It is pretty clear conservatives have ZERO interest in climate change and will abandon and scrap anything not palatable by their corrupt donors in the oil and gas industry. Alberta is a good example and Pierre is very buddy buddy with Smith, you can see the writing on the wall.

This is a war Canadian can't afford to lose as with the rest of the world. I truly blame the right for making climate change political than a primary concern domestically. Conservatives are in bed with the oil and gas industry and only have their own pocket books at heart and ZERO interest in what is best for Canadians, the economy and globally when it comes to climate change.

Conservatives in Canada are basically US Republicans in all but name. And I don't mean that just ideologically, I mean organizationally--there is huge interpenetration; they totally hire US Republican firms to do a bunch of their electioneering. They're a bit more cautious with their messaging in Canada because the Canadian culture is a bit different, but they are the same people.

And it's true at the grassroots level as well--most of them seem to either think they're Americans, talking about Constitutional rights, like to carry guns or whatever, that do not exist in Canada, or wish they were Americans. They read/watch American propaganda on their social media (except Jordan Peterson, but he's just a case of the product crossing over in the other direction--Canadian MAGA types wouldn't watch him if he wasn't famous in the US), they watch Fox News. They are Canadian in name only.

Yeah, they're wannabe Americans, just another level of mortification; a few even slow-talk like Americans....

Agree completely. Attended an excellent talk last night by John Vaillant, author of Fire Weather, The Making of a Beast. The oil and gas industry in Canada is owned and operated largely by American based companies who are making obscene profits that they reward American shareholders. The CEOs of the oil companies don't think they should have to clean up after themselves, instead the Canadian taxpayer should foot the bill. Collectively, the oil companies are spending ~100 million dollars a year in lobbying and greenwashing advertising while not investing in renewable energy. Their sole interest is to make as much money as possible. We should be rioting in the streets!

Good link. Thanks for sharing.

Having lived with a heat pump for over two years now, I am a fan. Yes, it was more expensive than a straight A/C would have been, but that ignores a string of advantages. First, they are QUIET, unlike an A/C compressor that starts off like a jet taking off. Then there is the fact that it operates in both directions - heating and cooling - so our place is more comfortable than it was even in the winter months. And it hasn't changed our electricity bill. We were lead to believe it would be cheaper, but as we had added a substantial amount of insulation in our attic a couple years earlier we had already cut that bill (and the rebates combined with reduction in the electricity bills meant the insulation paid for itself within the first 5 years). So as someone who does actually live with a heat pump, I can attest to the benefits.

Do heat pumps run on solar?? How expensive is it to run heat pumps that do both,, cool and heat ?? What happens during power failure ? Isn't wood cheaper and better ?

Heat pumps run on electricity. So yeah, they could run on solar, although you'd want to be sure about backups because winter time isn't the best for sunlight.

As far as I can make out, pretty much all heat pumps both cool and heat; it seems to be just part of the package. On the heating side, compared to say natural gas they are far more efficient, and seem to be somewhat cheaper to operate in Canada given typical prices of gas vs electricity. On the cooling side, they are definitely far cheaper to run than more traditional air conditioning systems, because both use electricity but heat pumps are way more efficient.

What happens during power failure is the same as with a modern natural gas furnace (cuz they have electric ignition)--they stop working unless you have backup power, like a battery or something. Depending on how many and how long of power failures you expect where you are, this could be a serious problem.

Wood . . . well, I live in a suburb and there's no way I can get wood for any price lower than "ridiculous", so it depends where you are. If you are rural and have a big lot with lots of trees that you can chop down for free, then sure, I guess it's cheaper, and good exercise if you have the time and inclination. But that's very few people. And, um, better . . . well, wood stoves/furnaces/whatever make a bunch of smoke which is surprisingly bad for you, as we've been finding out when forests burn down. And in the short term, they make climate change worse. If you have that lot and you plant more trees to replace the ones you chop, it will balance out in 50 years maybe as long as that kind of tree is still willing to grow in whatever climate you have by the time the tree is growing up . . . but RIGHT NOW, you just burned a lot of stuff and made a lot of CO2, probably more than if you were heating your home with freaking coal. By the time the replacement trees have pulled in the equivalent CO2 to what you burned, we're already fried. So not really ideal, not right now anyway. A few decades ago it maybe would have been fine? A few decades from now if we're otherwise carbon neutral it probably will be fine? But right now we're kind of on the brink of disaster. Mind you, if I were rural I can definitely see having a wood heater around for backup during those power failures you mention.