Achieving net zero with a heat pump

High-Performance Homes: Heat Pumps’ Pivotal Role in Achieving Net Zero Targets

With today’s focus on reducing energy consumption and our carbon footprint, heat pumps offer a way to significantly cut emissions of greenhouse gases and they help improve air quality. When heat pumps are partnered with a renewable energy source like a solar panel system, heat generation can be 100% carbon neutral.

According to IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates, heat pumps globally have the potential to reduce global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by at least 500 million tonnes by 2030.

In this article, we’ll explore the significance of heat pumps in Canada’s push towards net zero, the different types, their role in achieving net zero targets, and the benefits they offer.

Understanding heat pumps

Heat pumps are an energy-efficient alternative to traditional furnaces, baseboard heaters and air conditioners in all Canadian climates. Like the refrigerator in your kitchen, a heat pump uses electricity to “pump” heat from a cool space to a warm one, which makes the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer.

During the cooler months, your heat pump moves heat from the cooler outdoors into your house. And during the hottest months, it moves heat from your house to the outdoors. Because heat is transferred rather than generated, heat pumps are more energy-efficient at delivering comfortable living temperatures for your family. Heat pump models available today are 3-5 times more energy efficient than gas furnaces or boilers.

Types of heat pumps

There are three primary types of heat pumps, connected by ducts to all parts of your home: air-to-air, water source and geothermal. These systems collect heat from the air, water, or ground outside of your home and concentrate it, so it can be used inside.

  1. Air source heat pumps (ASHPs): Air source heat pumps are the most common type, transferring heat between the inside of your house and the air outside. Heat pumps today can reduce your heating electricity consumption by about 50% when compared with resistance heating solutions such as furnaces and baseboard heaters. The high-efficiency heat pumps being installed in passive houses and net zero homes now also dehumidify more effectively than conventional air conditioners, which offer superior cooling comfort during the summer months, with less energy consumption. In recent years air source heat pump technology has advanced, making them a viable solution even in Canada’s coldest regions.
  2. Ground source heat pumps (GSHPs): Geothermal (aka ground-source or water-source) have low operating costs because they employ relatively constant ground and water temperatures. Geothermal systems cost more to install but can reduce energy use by 30-60%. They are rugged and reliable, control humidity well, and will work with a wide range of homes and residential lots. Ground source and water source heat pumps make a better choice than air source heat pumps in the extreme climates of northern BC or the mountainous regions along the west coast The size of your lot, the subsoil and the terrain will determine whether a geothermal heat pump will work for your lot.
  3. Hybrid heat pumps /absorption heat pumps (AHPs): hybrid heat systems (aka dual-fuel systems) have an air source heat pump that is backed up by an auxiliary combustion furnace. These hybrid heating systems can save homeowners between 30 and 50 percent in energy costs over a year, but may not qualify under some net zero energy definitions, or under some municipal bylaws.
  4. Ductless mini-split heat pumps: Mini-split heat pumps are available for homes without ducts, such as net zero retrofit projects. These systems use a special type of air source heat pump known as a “reverse cycle chiller”, that generates hot and cold water instead of air, which allows it to be used with radiant floor systems in the heating mode.

The importance of heat pumps in achieving BC Energy Step Code net zero targets

According to the BC Energy Step Code, all new buildings will be net-zero energy ready by 2032. Because heat pumps can replace gas furnaces and fireplaces, and the electricity they use can be sourced from on-site renewable sources such as solar panels or wind turbines, governments around the world see them as a key climate solution.

Heat pumps have gained prominence in BC construction and design for several compelling reasons.

Energy efficiency: Heat pumps achieve their impressive energy efficiency by moving heat instead of having to generate it. Traditional heating systems rely on combustion or electrical resistance to generate heat.

With ever-rising energy costs in Canada, the efficiency of heat pumps translates into significantly lower heating and cooling costs for net zero ready homes, and protection against future price hikes. In net zero homes, those heating and cooling energy needs are covered by clean in-house renewable solar energy, so there should be no monthly energy bill at all.

Reduced carbon footprint: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has become a global priority. By heating and cooling ‘net zero ready’ homes with heat pumps powered by low-carbon grids, or ‘net zero’ homes powered with renewable sources, BC homeowners can significantly decrease their carbon footprint.

Both heat pump strategies align with Canada’s commitment to environmental sustainability and climate change, and BC Energy Step Code step 5.

Versatility: Heat pumps are incredibly versatile because they can provide both heating and cooling. They ensure comfort during the hot summer months by efficiently cooling indoor spaces, while delivering enough heat to keep everyone comfortable during the winters. This adaptability is especially important in southern BC, where temperatures and humidity can fluctuate dramatically throughout the year.

Reliability in cold climates: Canada is known for its harsh winters, with temperatures plummeting well below freezing. Heat pumps – particularly ground source heat pumps – remain efficient even in prolonged periods of cold weather. They deliver a reliable, consistent source of heat and can keep your home toasty warm in the harshest conditions.

Long-term cost savings: The upfront cost of installing a heat pump may be higher than a traditional furnace, radiant heat or baseboard heaters and an air conditioner, but the long-term savings typically justify the investment. With lower or zero energy costs, less required maintenance, and potential government-backed incentives, you can expect a favourable return on investment over the life of your heat pump system.

The role of heat pumps in net zero homes

Net zero homes are designed to produce as much energy as they consume, resulting in a balanced energy equation. Heat pumps play a pivotal role in reaching net zero targets.

Energy efficiency and load reduction: The net zero concept focuses on minimizing energy consumption through super-insulation, airtight construction and the use of energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting. Heat pumps are a natural fit, providing efficient heating and cooling, while reducing the overall energy demand. Heat pumps’ ability to move heat rather than generate it ensures that every kilowatt of electrical energy consumed translates into useful thermal energy.

Renewable energy integration: Net zero homes typically incorporate a renewable source like solar panels to generate clean energy. Heat pumps can be integrated seamlessly with the panels in these systems, so renewable electricity is used to power them.

Balancing seasonal variations: BC’s west coast experiences significant seasonal variations in temperature. Temperatures in the Sea to Sky Corridor, for example, can range between summer highs of 40C (104°F) and winters dropping to a chilly -20°C ( -4°F). Heat pumps – particularly ground source heat pumps – excel in maintaining indoor comfort across all four seasons. During the colder months, they effectively extract heat from the ground or air, and this balance is crucial for net zero homes.

Resilience and backup systems: To achieve net zero certification, these homes must be resilient and capable of maintaining your family’s comfort, even in adverse conditions. Heat pumps are reliable in cold conditions, making them an excellent choice for resilience. Backup heating and cooling systems, such as backup batteries and auxiliary combustion furnaces or gas-fired heat pumps, can be integrated into net zero homes to ensure your comfort during extended power outages or extreme weather events.

Benefits of heat pumps in net zero homes

BC’s climate diversity requires adaptable heating and cooling solutions that can perform efficiently in a wide range of conditions. Consequently, heat pumps have gained importance in Canadian design and construction for several compelling reasons.

Energy independence: Net zero homes with heat pumps are less reliant on external energy sources. These homes generate their electricity from renewable solar systems and utilize efficient heat pump technology to meet their heating and cooling needs. In the current climate of escalating and fluctuating energy costs, this level of energy independence provides peace of mind.

Enhanced comfort: Heat pumps distribute heat or cool air evenly through the duct system to each room, eliminating the temperature variations often associated with a traditional furnace, radiant or baseboard heat, or air conditioning system.

Lower operating costs: While the initial cost of installing a heat pump in your net zero home may be a bit higher, the low operating costs will more than offset this expense over time. Low or zero energy bills and potential incentives or rebates contribute to overall cost savings.

Environmental Stewardship: Owning a net zero home with a heat pump system is an environmentally responsible choice. Heat pumps reduce carbon emissions, minimize energy waste, and set an example for sustainable living. You can take pride in your contribution to a greener future.

The takeaway

The heat pumps available on the market today are three to five times more energy efficient than natural gas furnaces or boilers, so they will save you money even if the home is net zero ready, without a renewable energy source. But when heat pumps are partnered with renewable electricity, heat generation becomes 100% carbon neutral.

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