C&I Challenge: Reinventing Cold-Climate Heat Pumps to handle an Extreme Weather Future

Jan. 27, 2022
Key barriers for adoption of next-gen cold-climate heat pump technology are cost issues and the lack of well publicized demonstration projects proving the worth of the devices in buildings and homes

Here’s some water cooler talk for when and if workers ever return to their offices and factories completely: It takes a lot of energy to keep us all comfortable while we work, so what are we going to do about it?

In fact, commercial buildings in the U.S. consume about 35 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. and generate more than 800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. So nearly a fifth of the CO2 sent into the atmosphere nationwide emits from those workplaces, according to federal stats.

And it’s not much better at home. As extreme temperatures continue to drive lows lower and highs higher, a key piece of the Energy Transition seems to be the mission to make our comfort much more energy efficient.

The U.S. Department of Energy hosted a webcast panel this week focused on the Cold-Climate Heat Pump Challenge issued earlier this year. Dozens of utilities, state agencies and heating, ventilation and cooling technologies firms are engaged in taking up that gauntlet of better and less polluting electrification at office, factory and residence, particularly in the U.S. Midwest.

Silver Buckshot and Next-Gen Compressors

It’s not a single silver bullet that will fix the issue, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during the webcast. It’s a “silver buckshot” approach which considers a multitude of solutions all aimed in the same direction. 

“We’ve got a lot of strategies to be able to get to these big goals,” Granholm said, referencing the Biden Administration’s ambitious policy of a carbon-free grid by 2035.

“We need to electrify as much as we can,” the Energy Secretary added. “Forty percent of energy used in buildings goes toward keeping indoor spaces comfortable. Heat pumps give us a better way to do that. ..using electricity to transfer heat—move it out in the summer and in during the winter.”

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These new-generation heat pumps theoretically would be designed to replace gas-fired furnaces used in many homes and commercial buildings, as well as represent an environmental upgrade over less efficient HVAC systems.

Among the eight major HVAC technology firms which have joined the DOE Cold-Climate Heat Pump Challenge, Johnson Controls was represented in the webcast panel.

Carrier, Mitsubishi Electric, Trane, Lennox and Daikin are other HVAC companies of scale to take up the DOE challenge. Much of the focus is on residential, all-electric home applications, but the technology scaled up can serve the needs of larger buildings, too.

Katie McGinty, who is vice president and chief sustainability, external relations officer at Johnson Controls, said the company is efforting at a sustained, fast and diligent pace to develop next-gen and efficient cold-climate heat pumps. Some of the work is on making the equipment more targeted, of course, but also ramping up the digital components that can make the pumps and other widgets smarter.

“Digitalization can add 50 percent more in terms of emissions cuts … to what we achieve by additional pieces of equipment,” McGinty added. “The lighting is talking…the whole building is talking to the grid and serving as a battery for the grid.”

Communication clearly is a key, but this challenge forces technology to speak a different kind of language, in a way. The challenge for Johnson Controls and other HVAC firms trying to create a cold-climate heat pump makeover is in the basic concept of a reverse kind of AC work for wintertime.

“New compressors, new heat exchangers and new control strategies,” McGinty pointed out. “We have to re-engineer this from the bottom up…optimizing for heat” in very extreme winter situations.”

Getting Realtors and Builders to see the Value of Cold-Climate Heat Pumps

If we needed a real-world and relevant example of extreme, Connexus Energy CEO Greg Ridderbusch offered one au courant case study by noting the temperature outside his company’s headquarters in Ramsey, Minnesota dropped to 19 degrees below zero that morning. Connexus Energy is an electric cooperative provides power for a large swath of customers in northern Minnesota.

Key barriers for adoption of next-gen cold-climate heat pump technology are cost issues and the lack of well publicized demonstration projects proving the worth of the devices in buildings and homes. The Connexus HQ in Ramsey has been supplied by a commercial heat pump for the past 25 years, he noted.

The housing market needs to absorb that relevance to both energy, cost efficiency and the future.

“It’s an opportunity for realtors and builders to educate” current and potential property owners,” Ritterbusch said. “Homes with cold climate heat pumps can fetch premium prices.”

Of course, only if they prove they can meet the challenge of extreme cold and heat as well as cost competitiveness. Those are the most important barriers to cross.

Johnson Controls’ McGinty believe the case will be made for the cold-climate heat pumps (and cooling) units of the lower-carbon future.

“First of all, they are extremely energy efficient,” she said. Typically, “heat pumps produce three units of useful energy for every unit of energy they consume.

“And, since it’s relying on electricity instead of direct fuel (such as natural gas or heating oil) it dramatically enables us to minimize and turn off fossil fuels,” McGinty added.

The Biden Administration’s Infrastructure bill, passed late last year, allocates bout $5 billion to fund energy efficiency technology deployment.

Other leaders who participated as part of the DOE panel included Christopher Clark, president of Northern States Xcel Energy; Michelle Gransee, state energy office director for the Minnesota Department of Commerce; U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn), and Kelly Speakes-Backman, principal deputy assistant secretary of Energy.

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can reached at [email protected]).

About the Author

Rod Walton, EnergyTech Managing Editor | Senior Editor

For EnergyTech editorial inquiries, please contact Managing Editor Rod Walton at [email protected].

Rod Walton has spent 15 years covering the energy industry as a newspaper and trade journalist. He formerly was energy writer and business editor at the Tulsa World. Later, he spent six years covering the electricity power sector for Pennwell and Clarion Events. He joined Endeavor and EnergyTech in November 2021.

Walton earned his Bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. His career stops include the Moore American, Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, Wagoner Tribune and Tulsa World. 

EnergyTech is focused on the mission critical and large-scale energy users and their sustainability and resiliency goals. These include the commercial and industrial sectors, as well as the military, universities, data centers and microgrids. The C&I sectors together account for close to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

He was named Managing Editor for Microgrid Knowledge and EnergyTech starting July 1, 2023

Many large-scale energy users such as Fortune 500 companies, and mission-critical users such as military bases, universities, healthcare facilities, public safety and data centers, shifting their energy priorities to reach net-zero carbon goals within the coming decades. These include plans for renewable energy power purchase agreements, but also on-site resiliency projects such as microgrids, combined heat and power, rooftop solar, energy storage, digitalization and building efficiency upgrades.