A heat pump in every home
You probably know the rap already — heat pumps are the key to sustainable heating, both in buildings and for a lot of industries. And you probably know they’re as close to magic as things get in the climate world — they aren’t just “heat” pumps but air conditioners as well. And they’re outlandishly, even perplexingly, efficient. More than 100 per cent efficient. We get more energy out than we put in, with models running at 300 per cent, 400 per cent and even higher efficiencies.
If there’s a silver lining to the recent fracas over the carbon tax and heating oil, it’s that a lot of people beyond our orbit are now hearing about heat pumps. Ever more neurons firing and wiring, strengthening the synaptic connections between fossil fuels, climate change and electrification.
And since you’re all such a practical bunch, it’s probably a good moment to look at what’s working out there in the wider world of heat pumps. Who’s doing a good job getting them installed? And what are those countries doing?
If you scan the globe, the runaway leader in pumps-per-homes is Norway. And no, I’m not mixing up the stats for electric cars. You’ve probably heard that almost all new cars in Norway are now EVs, but the Norwegians are rocking heat pumps, too. Over 60 per cent of households already have heat pumps. Almost all of them of the air-source variety.
It’s a very peculiar country when it comes to climate and energy — pumping two million barrels per day with plans to increase extraction for export while aggressively rolling out fossil alternatives like EVs and heat pumps domestically.
Another peculiar point is that Norway is undeniably cold in winter. It’s bisected by the Arctic Circle and not the kind of place people get risky about home heating.
In fact, the runners-up on heat pumps are really cold as well: Sweden and Finland (where 43 per cent and 41 per cent of households already have heat pumps).
So, what did these countries do?
Stop and electrify
Since the energy crisis in the 1970s, the Nordic governments resisted any new dependence on fossil fuels for heating. All of them had been very dependent on heating oil in particular.
The countries embraced electrification, some prioritized district heating and they focused on the basics of building efficiency (insulation, good windows and the rest). Homes in Nordic countries leak the least heat on the continent. Norway very notably resisted getting high on its own supply of natural gas, favouring electricity from hydropower instead.
That broad effort has been underway for quite awhile, and certainly set the stage, but the mass adoption of heat pumps across Norway and other leading countries is much more recent. Heat pumps have accelerated from zero to 60 in the last few years thanks to a package of regulations, carbon pricing and smart programs coupled with incentives.
Ban the burn
In 2018, Norway introduced a ban on the use of heating oil for residential, public and commercial buildings, which came into effect in 2020. This wasn’t just a ban on installing new systems — it applied to new and existing buildings. “Those using fossil oil for heating must find other options by 2020,” Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen notified everyone back in 2017.
The regulations now extend across the Nordic countries for all buildings and all fossil fuels. And they are being copied with various amendments across Europe. Some apply to all buildings, some target new ones, some kick in when furnaces are replaced.
The regulations aren’t always written as bans on fossil fuel burning. They can also be framed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate poisonous fumes, or require clean energy. New regulations are being written all the time, but as things stand, the big EU countries have programs that either explicitly phase out fossil fuels in heating or do so implicitly, as in Germany where the regulation requires any heating system to be at least 65 per cent sourced from renewable energy.
“Carbon taxation has played a key role in making heat pumps economically competitive in all three (Nordic) countries,” according to the Regulatory Assistance Project.
They have had steadily rising carbon prices since the early 1990s. Sweden’s is currently $158 per tonne, compared to $65 in Canada (heating oil not included). Norway’s currently sits at $100 and is scheduled to rise to $255 in 2030 when Canada’s is slated for $170.
Incentives and programs
Subsidies and installation programs have been in place since the early 2000s in all the leading countries. Each country has different schemes and the policies get pretty complex since they are customized to support not just air-source heat pumps but also air-to-water systems, geothermal and water-based ones, as well as district heating systems and energy efficiency more broadly.
The net result is that these countries are still accelerating heat pump installation even though the markets are pretty mature at this point. Last year, heat pump installation increased by 50 per cent in Finland and rose 25 per cent even in Norway where the momentum is already so high. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and caused an energy crisis, European countries had an obvious template and heat pump sales jumped to three million in 2022. In several countries, installations doubled in a single year.
As for the impact on carbon pollution? “Cumulatively, the heat pumps sold over the past 30 years contributed to a -72 per cent drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from heating in Finland, -83 per cent in Norway and -95 per cent in Sweden,” writes Jan Rosenow, one of Europe’s heat pump gurus.
Rosenow is quick to emphasize that those results also include “district heating, (which) has become less carbon intensive and buildings have been built and retrofitted to a higher fabric efficiency standard over time.”
By contrast, carbon pollution from buildings is still very much on the rise in Canada. The only sector growing faster is oil and gas.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the steps some cities in Quebec are taking to stop hooking up new buildings to fossil fuels. Andrea wrote in from the West Coast to make sure we don’t ignore B.C.
“Are you aware that several municipalities in the Capital Regional District (Victoria) have adopted B.C.'s new Zero Carbon Step Code?” Andrea asks. “This will ban fossil gas in new builds… It's a provincial code that municipalities can adopt, much like the Energy Step Code.”
Advocates like Andrea have already convinced councillors in a number of municipalities to require zero carbon for new builds by the end of 2024. Those include B.C.’s capital, Victoria, as well as nearby Saanich, Central Saanich, View Royal, Esquimalt and Colwood.
Beyond the capital region, Andrea lists off “Nanaimo, North Cowichan, the District of North Vancouver, Richmond, Whistler, Rossland and Nelson have adopted the code or something similar to it.”
Each one a testament to long hours of local organizing and leadership from elected officials and local government staff. Kudos to you all.
B.C.’s premier has also jumped on the heat pump parade, heading off to the premiers’ meeting in Halifax, suitably attired.
“We spent over a billion dollars fighting forest fires this year,” Premier David Eby said. “We will spend well in excess of a billion dollars addressing atmospheric rivers, floods in the Fraser Valley and it’s just devastating B.C.… Heat pumps are efficient even in extreme cold, cost-effective and a clean way to heat your home. That’s why I’m advocating for the federal government to bring their heat pump program to B.C.”
Just for a moment, let’s be generous and set aside some begged questions about fossil gas, fracking and old-growth logging. Because that was the kind of pitch we want to hear more often from the premiers — strengthening those sapien synapses and contrasting the costs of climate change to affordability and clean energy.
The Canadian Climate Institute has shown that heat pumps are already “the lowest cost option for heating and cooling most homes in Canada.” There’s even an online calculator to help you run your own numbers.
But the upfront costs are daunting for many people, even with the various rebates available and the interest-free loan on offer from the feds. And upfront costs are insurmountable for low-income Canadians. This spring, the Trudeau government brought in an “Oil to Heat Pump Affordability Program” to provide upfront support and that’s what it jacked up during the carbon tax-heating oil fiasco.
If it hadn’t been overshadowed by the controversy over the carbon tax, it’s the kind of chicken-in-every-pot that climate action sorely lacks. Instead of invisible “emissions” and wonky policies, the heat pump is something tangible. And some advocates are urging the feds to “flip the script” by boosting heat pump programs, coupling them with other energy savings like insulation and offering them to all low-income Canadians, no matter what fuel source they’re stuck on right now.
“One way to improve affordability and reduce emissions at the same time is to help people improve their energy efficiency,” says Brendan Haley from the Efficiency Canada think tank.
The federal government could “actually strengthen its climate policy and climate agenda instead of weakening it (with) a national energy efficiency program for low-income Canadians.”
The Affordability Action Council made a similar proposal for a “Retrofit Reset” prioritizing low-income households: “Older, drafty homes without air conditioning” where people are vulnerable to high energy costs and climate risks. Free, turnkey retrofits would aim to make “about 100,000 homes per year more affordable, energy efficient and climate resilient.”
None of this would be cheap. The Liberal’s newly-jacked heat pump affordability program is now pegged at $750 million over four years, just for Atlantic Canada. The Retrofit Reset would be more like $2 billion. That’s real money — and here’s another cortical connection — almost as much as the feds put on the table for carbon capture in the oilpatch.