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If Europe wants to harm Vladimir Putin, it needs to change the way people heat their homes.
As Moscow wages war on Ukraine, the European Union is scrambling to reduce its reliance on natural gas from Russia, which accounts for about 40 percent of the bloc’s total consumption.
Politicians’ immediate focus was on diversifying supply. But how Europeans keep warm will play a key role at the European Commission strategy to solve the bloc of Russian imports by 2027. In practice, this means that Brussels faces the enormous challenge of getting millions to move away from burning fossil fuels – and towards an electric alternative: the heat pump.
“Reducing Russian gas imports can only happen if there are significant changes in the way we heat our homes and offices, our schools and public buildings,” said Jan Rosenow, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project that is helping governments with the energy transition advises.
Buildings are the single largest gas-consuming sector on the block, accounting for approx 38 percent of EU gas consumption. The vast majority of them goes towards heating; more than the half of European households have a gas boiler installed.
In the course of this, the Commission wants to accelerate the rollout of heat pumps its REPowerEU plan, aiming to install 10 million units across the block over the next five years. That would save 12 billion cubic meters of gas a year, Brussels says — a small fraction of the 155 billion cubic meters the EU imports from Russia.
But the scaling of the sector has another significant advantage.
Decarbonizing buildings that account for about a third party of the EU’s energy emissions, is a key part of the European Green Deal, the bloc’s strategy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions – and heat pumps will also be crucial to this effort.
Rush for pumps
Local businesses say demand has skyrocketed in recent weeks amid skyrocketing gas prices and security of supply concerns sparked by Russia’s war.
Hans Schmidt, operator of a heat pump installation company in Bavaria, said the number of calls from interested parties has increased tenfold since February.
“People are scared,” he said. “Not only because of the prices, but I get calls from customers where we have plans to install in the summer or fall. They say, ‘Maybe there won’t be any gas tomorrow, can we do it earlier?’”
Heat pumps, which are similar to air conditioners and placed outside of buildings, heat homes by moving them instead of producing heat. Using electricity, they extract and concentrate heat from either the outside air, the ground, or the water, and then “pump” that heat into the home.
The commission’s 10 million figure focuses only on so-called hydronic heat pumps that use water sources, prompting industry warnings not to limit support measures to one type of heat pump.
Of the approximately 2 million units installed in the EU last year, almost half were pumps using the air-to-air system, said Thomas Nowak, secretary-general of the European Heat Pump Association.
In a single day last week, Schmidt said he received three dozen inquiries about heat pumps. But like many of his colleagues, he cannot meet this demand.
The problem isn’t getting the units. Reported that the administration of US President Joe Biden was seriously considering The shipment of American heat pumps to Europe as part of the war effort against Russia was met with amusement from EU industry officials.
“We have many production sites in Europe,” said Nowak.
Instead, the core challenge of the industry is the shortage of skilled workers.
Schmidt said it was almost impossible to find heating engineers in Germany. “We’re desperately looking for people,” he said. “Once I called the job center and said I needed plumbers for heating systems. They started laughing.”
Lack of awareness is another problem. In Germany, more than a third of new homes in 2020 chose gas boilers over heat pumps.
“Unfortunately, many installers are old or old-fashioned, they often say that heat pumps are only for new buildings,” said Schmidt. “But that’s not the case anymore… It works for almost every house.”
Andreas Graf, senior EU energy policy analyst at think tank Agora Energiewende, said governments need to make consumers understand – ideally by setting a phase-out date – that fossil-fuel boilers have no future in order to increase the uptake of heat pumps.
“This is the strongest signal that politics could send – to say that gas boilers of at least a certain type will no longer be allowed from the following date,” he said.
Graf added that tapping into gas boiler technicians will be key to tackling staffing shortages in the short term, as they can become certified to install heat pumps with a handful of retraining courses.
The Bigger Picture
Heat pumps are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to decarbonizing buildings and reducing gas demand.
Countries where gas is an important energy source are also switching to heat pumps would significantly reduce demand. But the best-case scenario for both climate and energy security is for heat pumps to run on renewable electricity, meaning countries will need to increase wind and solar capacity.
Analysts say these efforts should also go hand-in-hand with a push by the EU to set higher energy efficiency targets that encourage better insulation and prevent heat from being wasted.
“The point is that none of these solutions really do it by themselves,” said Brook Riley, head of EU affairs at Danish insulation manufacturer Rockwool. Scaling up heat pumps and renewable energy while reducing energy demand through measures such as building refurbishment “is a set of interdependent propositions. If you take one away, the whole thing kind of falls down.”
Governments also need to be careful that sections of society are not left behind in the transition to heat pumps. Homeowners who live in houses are much more likely to install the units than renters who rent apartments — partly for cost reasons.
Many countries already heavily subsidize heat pumps – in Germany the state covers between 35 and 45 percent of the cost – but “the upfront cost is still a barrier,” admitted Rosenow of the Regulatory Assistance Project.
“For people who are already quite tight financially, it will be difficult. So it would take massive public support to ramp up really really fast,” he added.
But for a growing number of Europeans, the rising cost of burning fossil fuels is motivation enough to make the switch.
“Two years ago, switching from oil or gas to a heat pump did something for the environment, but not for the wallet,” says Schmidt. “That’s changing now.”
Despite the challenges associated with scaling deployment, heat pumps are growing in popularity, he said. “This train is rolling and there is no stopping it.”
https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-heat-pumps-stop-russia-gas/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication The heat pump – POLITICO