Numlock Sunday: Rebecca Leber on the heat pumps of the future
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Rebecca Leber, who wrote “The most annoying barrier to getting your home off fossil fuels” for Vox. Here's what I wrote about it:
Heat pumps are around 4.5 times as efficient as using gas to heat a building, and have made significant strides over the past two decades. They’re effectively a two-way air conditioner, and about 10 percent of households in the United States use them as their main source of heating as of 2015. They’re increasingly seen as one of the most effective ways for a single home to cut its energy consumption and save a pretty good amount of money on the way, but the issue is they’re still a bit niche and finding an HVAC company with the expertise to install them is more difficult than more common gas-based heating. There are about to be thousands of dollars in rebates made available to people who get heat pumps as part of this summer’s Inflation Reduction Act, and another $200 million for training programs for contractors on how to install them, so that niche reputation is poised to change.
Heat pumps fascinate me because they’re a ready-to-go climate solution that has made significant improvements over the past couple decades, and there are still impediments to rolling them out, impediments that Leber excellently talks about in her piece.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Rebecca Leber, thank you so much for coming on. You had an excellent story about a week ago, all about heat pumps and some of the impediments related to getting them into homes given why they're so important. I just want to take a little step back. Can you just kind of describe what a heat pump is?
It works like a two-way air conditioner. It's basically transferring heat from one source in or outside a building to the other end. It uses some refrigerants, but overall it's a lot more efficient than the other technology people use for their homes, which is gas. Some studies put that up to 4.5 times more efficient, so even though the cost of installing a heat pump can be quite high, you can actually save money on your electricity bill in the long run.
It's a really interesting machine. Historically its reputation hasn't been the best, but there have been a lot of technological advances. Because it's become a little bit more advanced, the HVAC world isn't necessarily ready for the demand that's about to come. Do you want to talk about how heat pumps have changed and where they're at now?
It's a great question because it's interesting how geographically specific the skepticism around heat pumps is. Heat pumps are a lot more common in countries in Europe than in a lot of the United States. One stat that I dug up is that only 10 percent of households actually had heat pumps as their main source of heating as of 2015 in the U.S. I think Americans just overall are a lot less familiar with heat pumps, which is one reason there's a lot of misunderstood mythology around the heat pump. One way they have changed is the technology just has gotten better, because decades ago they didn't work as well in super cold climates because of that heat transfer we were talking about.
But as the technology has grown more efficient and refrigerants and compressors have gotten stronger, that is no longer true. Heat pumps, we see them in a lot of very cold weather states. They're quite popular in Maine. That's no longer true, but I think consumer awareness and more importantly, contractor awareness hasn't caught up to where the technology actually stands.
Can you expand on that?
Basically the reason for doing this story was I've been reporting on electrification of buildings for a long time now, and I have just heard anecdotally from enough people that they were having problems finding contractors or installers to get this technology into their homes. That they were hearing myths from contractors telling them that gas was better, that they were more familiar with gas, or that a heat pump wouldn't work in a cold weather climate.
Because a lot of these people are very climate motivated, these sources of mine, they know that's not true, which is how this first came to my attention. There's this unevenness in awareness among contractors. It really just varies across the country, depending on how common heat pumps are.
In some areas you might find HVAC installers who are very up on the latest technology, but in other parts, they might have only ever installed one or two electric heat pumps, and they're familiar with gas. That lack of awareness can be a big problem as we as a country are trying to move toward electrifying more buildings. I think the people problem of this equation is one of the biggest issues we're going to see come up next year when Inflation Reduction Act incentives really come in full force and we see demand shoot up for heat pumps.
This isn't just an issue in the HVAC space; you also mentioned a study that Sierra Club pulled off about car dealerships that found out they're just not really good at selling EVs. They haven't really prioritized that.
What are some of the incentives to change that beyond the ocean of money that is going to be flowing from the government into heat pumps?
The money of course helps, and I believe there are some incentives in the law that also target contractors and installers themselves.
But putting the money aside, I think there's actually a lot that education could do here. One obscure part of the Inflation Reduction Act is the money that it gives to states to set up trainings for contractors. States will have the power to design what these trainings look like, but they ideally will catch up this industry to the latest technology and make sure you raise that floor of awareness about really simple knowledge about climate change, and what this does for energy efficiency and, of course, properly installing the heat pump into a home. Trainings are a really important part here.
One of the contractors I interviewed in the Westchester County area in New York, he was saying one thing that would be very useful to see is actually more information coming from electric utilities and the manufacturers of heat pumps — who have every incentive to get good facts and correct facts about the energy efficiency of this technology — and what consumers can save into the hands of contractors. He thinks that they also can take a more proactive step in holding trainings for people in this industry.
A final challenge here, I think, is actually back to the people problem. The recruitment issue: The contractor industry broadly is getting a bit older, and making sure that there's a pipeline of people learning these trades and also learning the climate component at the same time is important as well. That is another area that hopefully these trainings will help in.
It is good that they kind of thought ahead that they would have to train folks to actually kind of enact this transition.
Basically, the government set aside $200 million for states here, which sounds like a lot, but it probably isn't enough when we're talking about realigning an entire industry behind climate action. We're talking about electrifying the nation's building stock, which is well over 120 million structures and the fourth largest carbon pollutant in the U.S. This is an enormous challenge. I think what we're seeing is just the start of that transition now. There's a lot more to do.
You write a lot about the energy transition; folks can find you at Vox. You really cover a great deal of what appears to be the actual nuts and bolts of how do you get from an economy that is entirely based on fossil fuels for all intents and purposes, and then get it into one that is really kind of electrified. What drew you here?
I think what drew me initially to the electrification beat specifically is how close this is to people's lives. I mean, people have a gas stove in their kitchen. As Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara, put it, "You're burning a mini fossil fuel plant in your home." I think connecting these kind of abstract targets or emissions cuts and this federal and local policy needed to be done, and how this actually interacts with people's lives is a really important thing to do in climate journalism. To make this a more tangible issue for people to grasp that we aren't just talking about global averages and degrees and emissions cuts, that these are real changes we need to make.
There is a massive number of people whose jobs and livelihoods are affected in the process. At my last job, Mother Jones, I was doing a lot of reporting around misinformation around gas stoves that was coming from the gas utility industry. That was me dipping my toes into this beat, realizing if gas utilities were spending heavily to hire social media influencers to promote the gas stove, there are some entrenched interests here trying to protect the status quo. There's a very interesting journalistic story to tell here, but also one that I think people can really grasp for what the stakes are.
You published an article about this on Friday, but the idea that you have a mini fossil fuel plant in your home is a really compelling spin on it, because air quality is really affected by this stuff.
It's actually pretty shocking how many people I've heard from after stories around gas appliances who'd never really connected the dots that this is a fossil fuel that you're burning. I think this has been this invisible problem where, I think in the last few years, there's growing public awareness.
Just to kind of bring it home, what are you looking forward to on this issue over the next couple years? Obviously the implementation of the IRA is going to be big, but what's on your radar here?
I'm definitely following implementation challenges for the IRA. I think particularly this people problem element is one that is probably the most difficult to actually address, but one I'm interested in.
I think looking at this winter, when thinking about how people are actually affected by these policies, I'm looking at what's happening with people's energy bills and particularly their gas heating bills this winter. That's something that is a huge concern given what's happened around the European gas crisis. People in the U.S. will also be feeling the effects of that, and I think that's the next stage of where this gas industry story is headed.
Where can folks find you and where can they find your work?
I'm at Vox. I cover climate change there. I'm also on Twitter at @rebleber.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.