Little-used heat pumps ideally suited for Metro Vancouver climate and help reduce emissions

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      When it comes to keeping the house warm and toasty, most people rely on furnaces and baseboard heaters.

      Probably not many of them have heard about air-source heat pumps, which are electric-powered devices that can either heat or cool a home.

      They take heat from outside and pump it inside. In hot weather, they work in reverse, as an air conditioner: hot air inside is taken out and cold air is taken in. They’re energy-efficient and they’re good for the planet, because they produce less carbon emissions than gas-fuelled heaters.

      According to a paper presented to Metro Vancouver by the Community Energy Association, heat pumps are “ideally suited” to the mild climate of the region.

      However, the nonprofit adviser to local governments has noted that these systems are not widely used in the Lower Mainland.

      The CEA was founded in 1995 by the B.C. provincial government and the Union of B.C. Municipalities to help local governments with their energy plans.

      The group is embarking on a two-year study to find a new approach to increase the rate of retrofitting existing buildings in the Lower Mainland with heat pumps.

      According to the CEA, heat pumps can reduce a typical home’s greenhouse-gas emissions by up to six tonnes per year while providing “significant financial savings”. The group also pointed out that meeting Metro Vancouver’s climate targets would require about three percent of homes to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources like electricity in home heating every year.

      The CEA noted that according to Natural Resources Canada, heat pumps accounted for only about three percent of heating systems in B.C. in 2015.

      “This is despite the fact that heat pumps provide significant benefits over natural gas heat,” the CEA stated in its presentation.

      The CEA noted that residential buildings produce 20 percent of the region’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

      The group also mentioned that single-family homes, attached dwellings, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings with fewer than five storeys represent 83 percent of all structures in the Lower Mainland.

      Dylan Heerema, an engineer and senior analyst with the Pembina Institute, a think tank that focuses on clean energy, has written that using electricity instead of gas for home and building heating is “one of the cheapest ways” to reduce carbon and air pollution.

      “While gas is cleaner burning than heating oil, it is far more polluting (around 17 times more) than our electricity, which comes mostly from hydro,” Heerema explained.

      Heerema pointed out that heat pumps cost “a little more” than gas furnaces but are “vastly more energy-efficient”. After rebates, a heat pump costs about $8,000 compared to $5,000 for a furnace.

      Erik Blair, an air-quality planner with Metro Vancouver, has prepared a report regarding the CEA’s two-year project for 2019-20.

      According to Blair, the CEA has received funding from the Real Estate Foundation of B.C. and the Bullitt Foundation, a U.S.–based nonprofit that promotes sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest.

      In-kind support was committed to by the city governments of Vancouver, New Westminster, Surrey, West Vancouver, and Richmond.

      Blair recommended that the regional government provide meeting space and staff expertise to the CEA undertaking. That suggestion was made in his report, which is included on the agenda Friday (November 1) of the Metro board.

      As for the role of the devices in dealing with climate change, Blair wrote: “Heat pumps are a market-ready solution for buildings to reduce greenhouse gases.”