More homes using heat pumps as cheaper, greener alternative to fossil fuels

U.S. emissions fell during the height of the pandemic as people were stuck at home, but that changed as the pandemic eased. Many researchers, scientists and lawmakers argue that Americans need to reduce their use of fossil fuels much sooner than they may have planned. Miles O'Brien reports on an alternative for home heating that could reduce the use and costs of fossil fuels.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    U.S. emissions fell during the height of the pandemic, as people were stuck at home and there were far fewer vehicles on the road. But that changed as the pandemic eased.

    And a new report this week shows emissions rose again by a small amount last year. Many researchers, scientists and lawmakers argued that Americans need to reduce their use of fossil fuels much sooner than they may have planned.

    Miles O'Brien is back with a look at an alternative for home heating that could prove useful and reduce the costs of fossil fuels.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A super efficient, economical, all-electric home, it can be done.

    Welcome to Mark Jacobson's home in Stanford, California. Built in 2017, it's a way to fully practice what he preaches.

  • Mark Jacobson, Stanford University:

    I wanted first and foremost a very comfortable home using zero fossil fuel energy.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. He is also co-founder of The Solutions Project.

  • Mark Jacobson:

    The green on here is the solar production during the day.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A nonprofit trying to accelerate the transition to 100 percent renewable energy all over the world.

  • Mark Jacobson:

    We have solar on the roof, electric heat pumps, an electric heat pump water heater. It's forcing myself to just use only electricity.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Would you declare this as a success?

  • Mark Jacobson:

    It's way beyond what I expected. I actually produce 20 percent more electricity than I consume.

    I think it proves that new homes can all be developed with no gas, all electric.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But what about existing homes? Is the transition away from fossil fuels practical and affordable? There is growing evidence it is.

  • Al Lopez, Green Team Long Island:

    But, coming out this side, you can still run it down.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Nine years ago, Al Lopez started a company called Green Team Long Island. He also is on a mission to rid homes of fossil fuels.

  • Al Lopez:

    Time is running out before we can really stop that two-degree warming that will start making things dramatically worse. Every home is going to be using heat pumps in a matter of time, because it's just so efficient.

    So we have seven heads?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    We caught up with him and his crew at Jennifer Bricourt-Fray's home in West Hempstead, New York. It's one of about 15 installations the company completes every week.

    She hired Green Team to install insulation, heat pumps and solar panels.

  • Jennifer Bricourt-Fray, Homeowner:

    I have always wanted to have a green home. I think it's something I have always thought about in my mind. I have always said, if I'm going to be a homeowner, something has to be green or everything has to be green.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Heat pumps are so green because they're not creating heat. They're just moving it from one place to another. Inside, there's a fluid called refrigerant that actually boils at minus 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

    As long as the outside air is warmer than minus 40. The refrigerant picks up heat from the outside air as it becomes a gas. It flows into an electric compressor, where it is put under pressure, adding more warmth to the gas. The warm gas flows into your room unit.

    As it heats your room, the gas itself condenses back into a liquid. Now the liquid travels back out, flowing through a valve that lowers the pressure and thus the temperature. And the cycle starts all over again. So, in the winter, you can pump heat inside and, in the summer, reverse the process to pump heat outside, cooling your room.

  • Al Lopez:

    You can go to 400, 500, 800 percent efficiency because you're not making heat. You're just pushing it from one area to the other.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But as the temperatures get very high or very low, the efficiency does decline.

  • Kathy Hannun, Co-Founder, Dandelion Energy:

    The challenge is, the time you need heating the most is literally when there is the least heat to be extracted from the air, right, on that coldest, coldest winter night. And the time when you need cooling the most is on the hottest summer day, when it's the hardest to put heat into the air.

    If bedrock is deep enough to let you do that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Kathy Hannun is the founder and president of Dandelion Energy. The company is installing heat pumps that are connected to geothermal wells. It makes a heat pump even more efficient.

  • Kathy Hannun:

    You're extracting heat and rejecting heat to the ground. And the ground is typically about 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. So it's just never that hard to pull heat out of the ground. And it's never that hard to put heat into the ground.

    And what that translates to is a system that's incredibly efficient and very cost-effective for homeowners.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Dandelion has focused on reducing the cost and consequence of drilling a geothermal well. It is using smaller, more nimble drilling rigs to reach tight lots, like this one.

    So far, they have installed more than 1,000 geothermal wells for heat pumps.

    Elaine Weir is among their customers. She got rid of her old gas furnace and air conditioning system at her home in Scarsdale, New York. All of it was replaced with two heat pumps in her basement attached to closed-loop geothermal wells.

  • Elaine Weir, Homeowner:

    And these pipes are connected to the outside underneath the ground.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The pipes are filled with a steady supply of 50-degree water year round, no matter the weather. The system cost $40,000 all in. But with subsidies and financing, they didn't have to come out of pocket up front.

    Has it been satisfactory, both in heating and in cooling?

  • Elaine Weir:

    Definitely. All our neighbors are all complaining about how much their heating bills went up, but we — ours stayed the same. And we're using that heat a lot more, and we use the A.C. a lot more as well.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Without guilt.

  • Elaine Weir:

    Yes, yes, without guilt, yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Of course, drilling geothermal wells to enhance heat pumps greatly adds to the expense. In the most extreme climates, it is often mandatory.

    But there is some conventional wisdom, or urban myth, that air source heat pumps don't work well in climates like New York either.

  • Vijay Modi, Columbia University:

    So I think we have moved the needle significantly. They have become more reliable.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Vijay Modi is a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University. He has installed heat pumps into his 150-year-old Harlem brownstone.

    He says heat pump technology has greatly improved in the last 20 years, but buyer, beware.

  • Vijay Modi:

    I think one gap we need to address is, we need more people trained to install them and install them right. They are a tricky technology. But this technology is there to deploy, right?

    We will need heat pumps simply because that's the only option we have.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    New York state aims to completely eliminate fossil fuels in all its buildings by 2050.

  • Al Lopez:

    Right now, we're doing about 20,000 buildings a year. To reach our goal, we have to do 200,000 a year, a tenfold increase.

    And that's where the challenge and the opportunity come in.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Is it realistic to imagine fully electrified homes en masse across this country in the next 20 years, do you think?

  • Al Lopez:

    It's a challenges. And it's a high goal, but one that is achievable.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    On rooftops all over the city, there is evidence the transition is well under way. But with one million buildings in this city alone, the road to zero is fraught with congestion and gridlock.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in New York City.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And there is a lot more online at PBS.org/NewsHour, including a story about solar-powered energy hubs being built in and around New Orleans to provide residents there with electricity after natural disasters.

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