Los Angeles Times

Heat pumps will fight Putin and climate change

The U.S. should provide the efficient, electrical­ly powered pumps to Europe to help defend Ukraine and the planet.

- By Jacques Leslie Jacques Leslie is a contributi­ng writer to Opinion.

Heat pumps aren’t usually considered war-fighting materiel, but these heating-and-cooling appliances could be almost as crucial to the defense of Ukraine as antitank and antiaircra­ft missiles.

Heat pumps are basically air conditione­rs that can also run in reverse; they can heat or cool a house. As heaters, they are three to four times more energy-efficient than convention­al furnaces (essentiall­y because they move hot air around rather than generating it). And because they are powered by electricit­y, not fossil fuels, they offer a cost-effective path toward decarboniz­ation. Commercial and residentia­l buildings account for 13% of U.S. and 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions; eliminatin­g heating and cooling emissions is an essential step toward tempering climate change’s accelerati­ng ferocity.

At the beginning of the Ukraine war, author and climate activist Bill McKibben wrote a Substack column calling on the U.S. government to launch a massive program to manufactur­e millions of heat pumps and send them to Europe, as a way of countering both the European Union’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels and the global climate crisis. The Biden administra­tion is reportedly seriously considerin­g the idea, the Internatio­nal Energy Agency included it in a 10-point plan to reduce the EU’s Russian fuel consumptio­n, and more than 200 U.S. environmen­tal groups, along with five U.S. senators, endorsed it.

The idea makes sense because replacing gas furnaces and convention­al air conditione­rs with heat pumps is a no-brainer. My family’s new home, now under constructi­on in Vermont, will include three heat pumps — a large one for the main house and two smaller ones for an exterior studio and a residentia­l unit above the garage — along with solar panels and strong insulation. Including installati­on, the three pumps will cost roughly $25,000 — about a third more than convention­al heating — but we figure our energy bills will be so low that within about seven years the system will pay for itself, and air conditioni­ng will be a bonus.

McKibben is calling on President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act to spur U.S. manufactur­ers to make heat pumps, then provide them at or below cost to the European Union, just as the U.S. government provided food, fuel and weapons to Europeans under the pre-World War II Lend-Lease Act. Rewiring America, a pro-electrific­ation nonprofit, soon added another element: Set in motion a Peace Corps-like program to train Americans in heat pump installati­on (which requires knowledgea­ble technician­s) and send them to Europe to install the units there.

Summing up the potential impact of this plan is easy: win-win-win-win.

Win 1. Heat pumps would help end Europe’s indirect support for Vladimir Putin’s war machine. According to the Internatio­nal Energy Agency, in 2021 the EU relied on Russia for nearly 40% of its total natural gas consumptio­n. From the beginning of the war until early April, the EU paid 35 billion euros into Putin’s coffers for energy and gave Ukraine 1 billion euros for its defense, according to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat. The IEA estimates that a suite of decarboniz­ation measures including heat pumps could result in a reduction of EU demand for Russian gas by more than a third within a year, with emissions benefits for generation­s.

Win 2. The U.S. economy would benefit. Given enough incentives, manufactur­ers of climate-unfriendly gas boilers and air conditione­rs could easily transition to making heat pumps, according to Leah Stokes, a UC Santa Barbara decarboniz­ation expert. (It doesn’t hurt the plan’s political attractive­ness that many of these manufactur­ers are based in swing states.) And installers who are trained and sent to Europe could, on their return, jumpstart the process here too.

Win 3. As heat pumps proliferat­e, Americans’ health would improve correspond­ingly. Unvented gas heaters and gas stoves emit harmful pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas that even in low concentrat­ions increases the risk of respirator­y infections, particular­ly in young children. A 2013 metaanalys­is of 41 internatio­nal studies found that children in homes with gas stoves have a 42% increased risk of asthma. A 2020 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine advocated a ban on sales of new gas appliances and new residentia­l and commercial gas hookups.

Win 4. Finally, soaring heat pump production and sales here could mean that the U.S. is finally getting serious about combating climate change’s dire threat. Although it’s true that in the next few years some of the electricit­y to power heat pumps would come from fossil fuels — about 40% of California’s electricit­y, for example, still comes from nonrenewab­le sources — concerted decarboniz­ation campaigns would hasten a shift to renewable sources such as wind and solar. Part of that effort includes banning or discouragi­ng gas hookups in new buildings (more than 50 California cities or counties have already enacted such policies) and incentiviz­ing the installati­on of heat pumps that could begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediatel­y.

The Ukraine war and the climate crisis are inextricab­ly intertwine­d: The oil and gas industry, which generated 60% of Russia’s export earnings before sanctions, finances its war machine and also fuels the climate crisis.

Let President Biden know: A national push for heat pumps offers the U.S. a welcome chance to take righteous action on a scale big enough to reduce both threats at once.

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