EU looks at an electric alternative to Russian gas: The heat pump
If Europe wants to hurt Vladimir Putin, it needs to change the way people heat their homes.
As Moscow wages war on Ukraine, the European Union is scrambling for ways to reduce its dependence on natural gas piped from Russia, which accounts for about 40 percent of the bloc’s total consumption.
Politicians’ immediate focus has been on diversifying supply. But how Europeans keep warm will play a key role in the European Commission’s strategy to get the bloc off Russian imports by 2027. In practice, that means Brussels faces the enormous challenge of getting millions to move away from burning fossil fuels — and toward an electric alternative: the heat pump.
“Reducing Russian gas imports can only happen if there’s significant change in the way we heat our homes and offices, our schools and public buildings,” said Jan Rosenow, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, which advises governments on their energy transition.
Buildings are the bloc’s single largest gas-consuming sector, responsible for about 38 percent of EU gas use. The vast majority of that goes toward heating; more than half of European households have a gas boiler installed.
The Commission wants to speed up the rollout of heat pumps as part of its REPowerEU plan, with the aim of installing 10 million units across the bloc over the next five years. That would save 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year, Brussels says — a small portion of the 155 bcm the EU imports from Russia.
But scaling up the sector has another significant benefit.
Decarbonizing buildings, which account for about a third of the EU’s energy emissions, is a central part of the European Green Deal, the bloc’s strategy for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions — and heat pumps will be key for that effort, too.
Rush on pumps
Local businesses say demand has skyrocketed in recent weeks amid exploding gas prices and supply security concerns sparked by Russia’s war.
Hans Schmidt, who runs a heat pump installation business in Bavaria, said the number of calls he’s getting from prospective customers has surged tenfold since February.
“People are afraid,” he said. “Not just because of the prices, but I’m having customers call me where we planned the installation in summer or fall. They say, ‘maybe there’s no more gas tomorrow, can we do it sooner?’”
Heat pumps, which resemble air conditioners and are placed outside buildings, warm homes by moving rather than producing heat. Using electricity, they extract and concentrate heat either from outdoor air, the ground or water and then “pump” that warmth into the house.
The Commission’s 10 million figure only focuses on so-called hydronic heat pumps using water sources, prompting warnings from industry not to limit support measures to one type of heat pump.
Of the approximately 2 million units in the EU installed last year, nearly 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 got three dozen inquiries about heat pumps. But he, like many of his colleagues, can’t meet that kind of demand.
The problem isn’t sourcing the units. Reports that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration was seriously considering sending American-made heat pumps to Europe as part of war efforts against Russia were met with amusement among EU industry representatives.
“We have a lot of production facilities in Europe,” said Nowak.
Instead, the industry’s core challenge is a shortage of skilled staff.
Schmidt said it’s near-impossible to find heating technicians in Germany. “We’re desperately looking for people,” he said. “Once I called the job center and said I need installers for heating systems. They started laughing.”
A lack of awareness is another issue. In Germany, more than a third of newbuilds in 2020 chose gas boilers over heat pumps.
“Unfortunately, many installers are old or old-fashioned, they often say heat pumps are only for newbuilds,” said Schmidt. “But that’s no longer the case … It works for almost any house.”
Andreas Graf, a senior analyst in EU energy policy at think tank Agora Energiewende, said governments need to make clear to consumers that fossil-fuel boilers have no future — ideally by setting a phaseout date — in order to increase uptake of heat pumps.
“This is the strongest signal policymakers could send — to say gas boilers, of a certain type at least, will no longer be allowed from the following date,” he said.
Graf added that tapping gas boiler technicians will be key to combatting personnel shortages in the short term, as they can get certified to install heat pumps with a handful of retraining sessions.
The bigger picture
Heat pumps are only part of the puzzle when it comes to decarbonizing buildings and slashing gas demand.
Even in countries where gas is a major power source, switching to heat pumps would cut demand significantly. But the best-case scenario for both the climate and energy security has heat pumps running on electricity produced by renewables, meaning countries will have to scale up wind and solar capacity.
Analysts say those efforts should also go hand-in-hand with an EU push to set higher energy efficiency targets that will encourage better insulation and stop heat from going to waste.
“The point is, none of these solutions really does it by themselves,” said Brook Riley, head of EU affairs at Danish insulation manufacturer Rockwool. Scaling up heat pumps and renewables while reducing energy demand with measures like building renovation “is a series of mutually dependent proposals. If you take one away, the whole thing kind of falls down.”
Governments will also have to pay attention that parts of society aren’t left behind in the shift to heat pumps. Homeowners living in houses are far more likely to install the units than tenants renting apartments — in part due to cost.
Many countries already heavily subsidize heat pumps — in Germany, the state covers between 35 to 45 percent of the cost — but “the upfront costs are still a barrier,” Rosenow, of the Regulatory Assistance Project, acknowledged.
“For people who are already quite tight with finances, this is going to be difficult. So it would require massive public support funding to really ramp up very fast,” he added.
But for a growing number of Europeans, the rising cost of burning fossil fuels is enough motivation to make the switch.
“Two years ago, changing from oil or gas to a heat pump meant you’re doing something for the environment but not for your purse,” said Schmidt. “That’s changing now.”
Despite the challenges involved in scaling up deployment, heat pumps will only get more popular, he said. “That train is rolling and it’s become unstoppable.”