“The easiest way to think about this is like your backyard is a battery,” says Ryan Dougherty, president of the Geothermal Exchange Organization, a trade association that advocates for geothermal heat pumps. “You can draw off that thermal battery in the winter and you can heat your house with the energy that’s right there in your yard. And then in the summer, the processes is just reversed: You take heat out of your house and you put it back into the battery.”
The downside of a heat pump is that you can’t install one on your own, unless you’re really handy. Whether it uses air or geothermal energy, a heat pump is no more difficult to install than an air conditioner, but you still need a professional. But the upside is that heating and air conditioning companies (disclosure: my aunt owns one such company) have been installing these things for years, so it’s just a matter of getting in touch with local businesses for quotes.
Cooling the Planet by Warming Your Home
Installation is going to run you between $4,000 and $8,000, but a heat pump pays dividends with its efficiency: It uses half the electricity of electric furnaces and baseboard heaters. “Even if your heat pumps are powered on coal power, it’s still a big upgrade,” says Duncan Gibb, lead analyst for heating and buildings at REN21, which advocates for renewables. “There’s really nothing to lose by making buildings more efficient as quickly as possible and deploying heat pumps. I think that the government should really be taking this seriously now.”
The long-term idea, of course, is to run heat pumps on power generated with renewables, not fossil fuels. But the economics are a bit tricky. Buying a heat pump is an upfront expense, and fossil fuels like gas for furnaces remain cheap. But as heat pumps grow in popularity, prices will come down, as happened with solar panels. So it’ll get cheaper to heat and cool a home cleanly, says New York University climate economist Gernot Wagner, who thinks of both of these technologies as investments. “It’s like the solar panel,” he says of heat pumps. “First you spend a lot of money, right? Much less of course now than ever, but you spend the money and once you have it, you’re printing free electricity.”
To make heat pumps more affordable, especially for low-income folks, governments need to offer tax breaks and hefty subsidies to incentivize homeowners and building owners to switch. (Honestly, if billionaires really cared about saving the planet, they’d pay for everyone to get heat pumps.) But officials can also ban new gas hookups, as cities like New York City and Berkeley are already doing. “Let’s cut the gas line, let’s put in a heat pump,” says Wagner. “It makes for a better indoor climate, it makes for a better home. It’s a no-brainer.”
Another option is “heat as a service,” in which a homeowner would pay a monthly fee for a company to install and maintain a heat pump. (Such programs are starting to pop up across Europe.) “It’s sort of like a phone plan,” says Gibb. “This is obviously great because it takes not only the upfront cost away from the consumer, but also it reduces their risk that’s associated with price fluctuations in fuel.” So if your local power plant is still running on fossil fuels, and the price of those spikes, you don’t take a hit on your heating bill.