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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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DoE Study Finds New Way To Slash Energy Use in U.S. Homes

  • NREL research suggests heat pumps could cut home energy use by 31% to 47%.
  • Up to 100% of homes using electric, fuel oil, or propane heating could see energy bill savings.
  • Heat pumps would reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 36% to 64%, especially replacing fossil fuel systems.
Energy

U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers make their case that millions of U.S. households would benefit from heat pumps. But the cost of installing the technology needs to come down to make their use a more attractive proposition.

The findings, detailed in the journal Joule, quantify the costs and benefits of air-source heat pumps across the United States and consider various climates, heating sources, and types of homes.

The researchers based their conclusions on simulations of 550,000 statistically representative households. Their analysis considered such factors as the performance of different heat pumps and whether additional steps to upgrade the insulation had occurred.

The analysis revealed a majority of Americans (62% to 95% of households, depending upon heat pump efficiency) would see a drop in their energy bills by using a heat pump.

Improving the weatherization of a home, such as by installing better insulation, would increase the range to 82% to 97%. However, due to high installation costs, heat pumps may only be financially feasible for a smaller portion of households.

Eric Wilson, a senior research engineer in the Buildings Technologies and Science Center at NREL and lead author of the paper ‘Heat pumps for all? Distributions of costs and benefits of residential air-source heat pumps in the United States’ explained, “There are millions of people who would benefit from putting in heat pumps, and there are incentives made available through the Inflation Reduction Act, both tax credits and rebates, that millions of households can benefit from. But what this paper shows is that there are still millions more households for whom the technology is still pretty expensive, and we need work to bring down the cost of installing heat pumps.”

His co-authors are Prateek Munankarmi, Janet Reyna, and Stacey Rothgeb, all from NREL; and Brennan Less from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Because heat pumps provide both heating and air conditioning, homeowners who do not already have air conditioning benefit from additional comfort, but that comes with an additional cost.

The researchers also noted installers who lack experience with heat pumps may also charge higher prices “to cover the hassle and risk of working with unfamiliar equipment and sizing procedures.”

Nationally, the researchers calculated, heat pumps would cut home site energy use by 31% to 47% on average, depending on its efficiency level, and 41% to 52% when combined with building upgrades such as better insulation.

The big difference between energy savings and energy cost savings is because natural gas prices are much lower than electricity prices on a Btu basis in many parts of the country.

The housing characteristics that had the largest bearing on savings were the heating fuel type and the presence of air conditioning.

For the 49 million homes that use electricity, fuel oil, or propane for heat and have air conditioning, 92% to 100% of homes would see energy bill savings, with median savings of $300 to $650 a year depending on heat pump efficiency.

Co-author Munankarmi said the savings were most significant in colder climates. Additionally, he said, homeowners can “save thousands of dollars on average” by putting in a smaller heat pump if they first have taken steps to improve the energy efficiency of their dwellings.

The researchers also found that installation of a heat pump prompted greenhouse gas emissions to decline in every state, but the drop was especially large when it replaced a heating system that had been powered by fossil fuels.

Nationally, heat pumps would cut residential sector greenhouse gas emissions by 36%-64%, including the emissions from new electricity generation.

**

This looks like a government promo job. Where heat pumps are common the electric utilities have major incentives that make it work in direct competition to the natural gas utilities. It looks like a carbon war battle.

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There are so many ways to do these calculations. Ultimately, a house needs so many BTUs to maintain an interior comfort level. The lowest cost BTUs, from a selected natural gas furnace or electrical watt made BTUs through a selected heat pump will determine the practicality. Until the incentives change – again.

It’s a political game that consumers in the U.S. face. Remember, its real hard to burn natural gas at a power plant to generate electricity and run the electricity out to your home more efficiently than a high efficiency natural gas furnace heating directly in the home.

Even worse is the scenario where the utility goes off line and you have to heat (or not) on your own. A standby generator energizing a fan and igniter is way less demanding than a heat pump.

Think through what is best for you, not the most politically sold idea.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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  • DoRight Deikins on March 16 2024 said:
    Wow, I'm very impressed, Brian. You did a great job of debunking a government promo job.

    I will admit that there are some locations where heat pumps are a good fit like coastal, southern Cal where they don't have extremes in temps and rarely have events such as hurricanes, floods, or storms that take out the electricity (I imagine those wild fires are a 1 in a 1000 year event!)

    But I've been there, done that - I've lived with a heat pump in Texas and wouldn't want to again. I'd rather sleep in an abandoned car and cook over a mesquite fire under a tarp. I will admit that maybe it was not installed or sized correctly, but the figures looked good. That's a good point about installation being a key decider in the ability of the heat pump. But most with whom I have talked, have agreed that it didn't work near as well as it was touted (or its theoretical efficiency).

    Two things you failed to mention in your excellent summary is how long it takes to heat or cool and the lifetime cost of maintenance - both involved in the total cost of ownership. Which as anyone with sense knows is more important than a slight savings in operating expense.

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