Feel that current in the air? As we electrify our vehicles and work to convert our energy grid to a carbon-free system, we are also moving toward electrifying other facets of our lives – such as heating and cooling systems in our homes.
The state of California has set a goal of Carbon Neutrality by 2045 and the city of Santa Barbara has set a more ambitious goal of Carbon Neutrality by 2035. One of Santa Barbara’s first steps is to move forward an Energy Code Amendment that would require new buildings to be built all-electric instead of also using natural gas. This important code will help the City move toward all-electric buildings powered by 100% clean power that will help make zero carbon communities possible.
Why do we need to move away from natural gas?
The bottom line is that we’re in a climate crisis and we need to get natural gas out of buildings. It’s a fossil fuel that leaks, and you can’t ever completely decarbonize it. Only 3-5% of the current natural gas supply in California could be replaced with renewable natural gas (captured from landfills and dairies), so we should save that renewable natural gas for heavy industry and hard-to-electrify sectors of the economy. New residential homes and commercial buildings are where it is cost-effective now to build all-electric instead of building new natural gas infrastructure, and where we should focus our efforts.
As our community makes this transition, it’s important to examine some of the ways that individuals can participate in making the switch away from fossil fuels to renewable electric power. One of these ways is by replacing natural gas with electric heating and cooling systems. This switch from gas to electric power reliance is important for addressing climate change, but it’s doubly important because of safety and health concerns in our fire-sensitive region.
Here’s why heat pumps are cool
While the initial expense of installing an electric heat pump may be more than replacing or installing a furnace, the cost savings of fueling your home with electricity rather than gas will pay off in time, particularly when you have solar power. In 2020, California became the first state in the U.S. to require solar panels in all newly constructed homes, so we can expect heat pump usage to go up and their costs to go down as more and more new homes are electrified.
The other big advantage that heat pumps offer in our warming climate is that they can provide both heating and cooling in your home, so they can essentially be used to replace both a furnace and an air conditioner.
Here are a couple personal stories that CEC recently gathered from our community that highlight how effective and affordable electric heat pumps are:
- Barbara Lindemann: CEC’s Board President is Pumped About Her Heat Pump
- Dennis Allen: A Green Building Pioneer’s Take on Heat Pumps
A basic guide to heat pumps
How they work
Heat pumps control household climates by extracting and moving the heat in the air, making them extremely energy-efficient. According to the Department of Energy, installing an air-source heat pump can cut your electric bill in half.
How and why do heat pumps use energy so efficiently?
Heat pumps don’t produce heat at all. Instead, they redistribute heat that’s already present in the environment. Transferring heat energy doesn’t require as much electricity as producing it, so heat pumps can keep every room in the house comfortable — for a much lower energy cost.
Pros and cons
The primary disadvantage of a heat pump is the upfront expense. However, when you look at the lifetime value, the financial picture changes, and will only continue to improve as they become more common.
Aesthetically, heat pump systems are similar to a traditional AC system. They include a visible outdoor unit, but this is generally pretty easy to hide with landscaping.
While they may take some getting used to, in general, heat pumps are considered more comfortable than traditional heating and cooling. They are quiet and don’t require much maintenance. The temperature throughout your home is more even and the continuous airflow ensures that every corner of your house is comfortable. Ryan Cullinen, Director of Pre-Construction at Allen Construction, says this is because ductless mini-split systems offer precise room-by-room temperature control. If you have rooms in your home that you don’t use on a regular basis, it is easy to zone them accordingly and not heat (or cool) areas that aren’t in use.
Many heat pumps also have built-in filtration systems to keep unwanted elements out of the air you’re breathing. And, since heat pumps are fully electric and don’t burn natural gas or oil inside your home, you won’t be subject to fumes or carbon monoxide.
On the road to Carbon Zero
Electrification is an important step on our road to achieve carbon neutrality. Decarbonizing the electric sector with solar and other clean and green forms of energy, electrifying the transportation sector with electric vehicles, and electrifying buildings with smarter and cleaner appliances and technologies like heat pumps are all steps we can take now to help make the world a better place.
- Check out CEC’s All-Electric REACH Code FAQ.
- Learn more about the action CEC has taken to support the City of Santa Barbara in banning natural gas in new building construction.
- Attend Entering the Electrician Frontier: The Tri-County Market for Heat Pump Water Heaters webinar on March 11, 2021 to learn more about heat pumps for space temperature needs.
- Read more about federal income tax credits and other incentives for energy efficiency.
- Watch this Electrification Overview Presentation (geared to builders).
- Review the EPA Report on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
- Reference the Santa Barbara City Council Agenda Report.
- Read the Rocky Mountain Institute report on The Economics of Electrifying Buildings.
Michael is the Energy & Climate Program Director at CEC and, as part of this, oversees our work in transportation. He has led dozens of CEC’s programs, from forming the regional electric vehicle readiness group to working on state policy issues at the Public Utilities Commission. He is the principal author of CEC’s Transportation Energy Plan, a comprehensive look at the various technologies, strategies, policies, modes and other options for reducing fossil fuel use in the transportation sector.