Right now, policymakers in New York state are facing an important and prescient question pertaining to the way citizens heat and cool their homes: expand aging, expensive natural-gas networks, or switch to a more renewable alternative?
This question was thrust into the forefront of New York state policy debate on the back of NYC Local Law 66-2014 — which established two greenhouse gas reduction limits and was proffered primarily as a means of helping the state hit its ambitious goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050 — and a moratorium enacted in Westchester, which disallowed the installation of any and all gas hookups in homes.
Thus, while policymakers are debating this key question, some homeowners fear that heating their homes is about to get more expensive. Their fear, however, is misplaced.
In fact, switching from natural gas to a renewable alternative — namely, geothermal heat pumps — would prove less expensive for homeowners, in addition to helping us reduce carbon emissions. The decision, for both policymakers and citizens, is a no-brainer.
Geothermal heat pumps are more efficient
Heat pumps, in simple terms, are machines that run on electricity and move heat or cold air from one source to another. Many of us already use them in our everyday lives. Refrigerators use heat pumps, for example, as do air conditioners.
More specifically, a geothermal heat pump runs on a thermal connection between your house and the earth via a plastic pipe installed under the ground in your yard. It connects through your basement wall to a heat pump most likely located in your basement or wherever your furnace is located.
In the winter, this pump extracts heat from the ground and pumps it into your home; in the summer, it extracts cold air for the same purpose. It’s the consistently mild temperature of the ground that allows these kinds of pumps to run efficiently year round, even during the hottest summer months and most frigid winter ones.
The simplicity and efficiency of geothermal heat pumps is also what makes them so remarkably inexpensive to run and maintain. In comparison to heating your house with oil, propane, or electric resistance, especially, the difference is staggering.
The difference is also meaningful in comparison to gas. For new-home construction where all-new natural gas pipelines would have to be constructed, the Natural Resources Defense Council claims that installing heat pumps instead of natural-gas lines would save homeowners $1,500 right away, and hundreds of more dollars each year after that in operating costs.
Homeowners would also enjoy the benefit of not having to buy a separate air conditioner or water heater, as their reliable geothermal unit would take care of all their needs.
Even if utility costs, which account for the more ongoing burdens of heating your house with gas, and which accrue interest over time, are fully subsidized, it would still be cheaper for homeowners to heat their houses with heat pumps.
Economically, the decision to make the switch is simple. But that’s not the only reason policymakers should incentivize this.
Better for the environment
Natural gas emits greenhouse gas emissions. Heat pumps, which run on electricity, don’t.
This, ultimately, is critical. During 2017, emissions from natural-gas use in buildings (i.e., stationary sources, not including electrical power plants) were 17,639,988 tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), or 41 percent of the 2030 limit and 144 percent of the 2050 limit.
Given that natural-gas use continued to grow after 2017, it is certain that the 2019 inventory, once published, will show even higher emissions from natural-gas use.
To hit New York state’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050, then, switching from gas to heat pumps — and eliminating this particular source of greenhouse gas — is a flat-out necessity.
Now, some will argue that further reductions in emissions from oil or electricity might allow us to continue using gas, and that as such, oil-to-gas conversions should be encouraged. But they would be wrong. Existing emissions from gas are already more than the total emissions limit set for 2050.
Switching to heat pumps simply makes sense
When you compare the costs of adding one more person onto the natural-gas grid with the costs of switching someone to a heat pump, the latter proves meaningfully less expensive, meaningfully more efficient, and exponentially better for the environment.
Geothermal pumps don’t require expensive extensions of existing and dangerous infrastructure. They can be easily and cheaply installed in every home, and they provide a better end result.
All citizens of New York state should encourage policymakers to embrace statewide measures that incentivize this important and logical solution to what is a veritable crisis of aging infrastructure, rising energy costs and environmental damage.
They should follow the lead of those who enacted the aforementioned moratorium in Westchester.
Ultimately, if New York hits its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050, switching to geothermal heat pumps will be one major reason why.
Jigar Shah is CEO of Generate Capital. Kathy Hannun is CEO of Dandelion Energy, a provider of home geothermal systems.