To tackle climate change effectively, we need to reduce carbon emissions from buildings. We can do that by switching to heat pumps.
Space heating is the primary cause of emissions from buildings, with too many using highly inefficient, outdated natural gas burning or electric resistance technologies. Fortunately, Ontario possesses an electricity supply that’s over 90 per cent carbon emissions-free. This creates the foundation for moving away from or avoiding fossil fuels for heating. The missing piece in the puzzle is an electric heating technology that’s radically more efficient than legacy gas-burning and electric resistance technologies: heat pumps.
Long in use in the U.S. and Europe, heat pumps use the temperature difference between an indoor and outdoor environment. These devices absorb heat from the ground, air, or water, and deliver it to an indoor environment. Heat pumps can also work in reverse and provide cooling. To accomplish the thermal energy transfer, heat pumps use a small amount of electricity. Compared to conventional heating and cooling systems, heat pumps are far more efficient and, when coupled with a low-carbon electricity source, can deliver dramatic emissions savings. Institutions such as the International Energy Agency recognize the importance of heat pumps in lowering building emissions.
- 24% of Ontario’s multi-unit residential dwellings are electrically heated
- 2,400 gigawatt hours of electricity are consumed annually for space heating in these buildings
- 60 per cent of annual electricity savings potential for space heating and cooling from heat pumps
The strongest business case for heat pump retrofits, based on the relatively high cost of electricity, comes from electrically heated multi-residential buildings. By zeroing in on multi-residential buildings that use highly inefficient electric resistance heaters, we can help speed up the uptake of heat pumps where they make the most economical sense. This will in turn help pave the way for the adoption of heat pumps in gas-heated multi-residential buildings.
Our research and analysis shows that converting multi-residential buildings from electric resistance heater to heat pumps offers significant savings potential – both in terms of electricity and carbon emissions. Depending on what incentives become available for building owners, we could achieve a conversion of 30 per cent of currently electrically heated units within 10 years. This scenario would yield 600,000 tonnes in saved carbon emissions and 2.2 megawatt hours in saved electricity consumption. And the necessary incentives would be cost-effective for Ontario’s utility companies.
However, a number of barriers need to be addressed to unlock this potential, such as the high upfront capital costs for heat pump retrofits and the limited awareness among building owners and operators of this technology and its savings potential. To address the identified barriers, utilities and the Ontario government should:
- Provide enhanced incentives for heat pump retrofits and ensure building owners have access to suitable retrofit financing options.
- Establish a streamlined Measurement & Verification protocol with clear guidelines for heat pump retrofits;
- Incorporate robust quality management strategies in any new incentive programs;
- Support demonstration projects to help kick-start the heat pump retrofit market;
- Strengthen the Ontario Building Code with renovation requirements that include heat pumps.
Much of our work on heat pumps was connected to a project we ran from 2015 to 2019, Pumping Energy Savings. That project received funding from the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).