Comment: Heat pumps bring a climate-change solution home

The technology provides clean and efficient electric heat in winter and cooling in summer.

By Michael Stevens / For The Herald

When most people complain about the weather in the Pacific Northwest, it’s usually about rain. But recently, heat waves have become a more common refrain around here; another way in which the climate crisis is fueling more frequent and extreme weather events.

For those with air conditioning, or who are able to drive out to the coast or the mountains, heat waves are but a manageable nuisance. But for those living in poorly insulated homes or apartments without air conditioning — or worse yet, are without shelter — the heat dome had deadly consequences.

According to the National Weather Service, more people die every year from heat than any other weather-related events. More deaths occur in under-invested communities, among low-income, Black and brown people; the same populations who already suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions that diminish their ability to cope with heat stress.

The latest heat wave won’t be the last. Scientists predict that similarly intense heat waves could hit Washington every five to 10 years. Unless our local and state governments act now to build more resilience to extreme weather in our communities, our most vulnerable neighbors will continue bearing the brunt of future heat waves. We need solutions that will protect public health and mitigate the climate crisis.

One way to do both is with all-electric buildings with heat pumps: a two-in-one appliance that pulls double duty by cooling indoor spaces during the summer and providing heating when it gets cold.

How does it work? Simply put, heat pumps move heat between indoors and outdoors, depending on where it’s needed. Most of the year, heat pumps would be used to warm up our homes, by pulling heat in from the outside. During warmer temperatures, it does the opposite, moving excess heat outside to cool down indoor temperature.

Heat pumps make perfect sense for Washington residents whose oil- or gas-burning furnaces are due for replacement and who have also been considering air conditioning. In fact, according to installers, there is a surge in interest among homeowners to convert gas-burning furnaces to electric heat pumps.

Heat pumps also make sense at a time when we need to cut carbon emissions. They run on electricity, and as our electric grid gets cleaner thanks to changes in state policy and falling costs of renewable energy, so will our appliances. By reducing carbon emissions needed to heat and cool our homes, we’re making sure we’re not adding fuel to the climate crisis, the very driver of extreme heat waves.

Heat pump technology has improved to the point where they can provide reliable heating even in the coldest of climates. And they do so with remarkable energy efficiency, ensuring that we don’t use more electricity than we have to.

Heat pumps aren’t a far-fetched dream. The technology is already hard at work right here in Snohomish County, at the Platinum LEED-certified HopeWorks Station in Everett.

The mixed-use building, which includes affordable housing, commercial space for social enterprises and office space for job training programs and other services, uses heat pump technology for space heating and cooling, clothes dryers, and water heaters.

Combined with on-site solar panels and energy efficiency features, residents enjoy comfortable temperatures all year while saving money on energy bills. It’s a win-win for public health and climate.

But projects like this didn’t come by happenstance. HopeWorks Station was funded by more than a dozen sources, including grants from Washington state, Snohomish County, and the City of Everett. It took strong political will and visionary intent to invest in a building that provides a healthy home for residents and protects the planet we all call home.

What’s it going to take for more HopeWorks Stations?

For starters, we need robust job training programs that will ensure we have a well-trained workforce to help build and maintain all-electric buildings. We’ll also want to make sure there’s a thriving marketplace for these workers’ skills. For that, we’ll need strong policies that incentivize the switch from gas-burning appliances to all-electric buildings, old and new.

And last but not least, we need justice-focused investments in low-income weatherization and community-based decarbonization programs that ensure nobody is left behind in our transition to a clean energy future.

The climate crisis is here now, and will keep coming at us. While we know we can’t turn the climate change ship around immediately, we already have the tools and technologies we know will help us endure extreme weather events and cut carbon emissions. Elected officials and public agencies must act now to prepare for the crisis today, and to make sure we are all prepared to deal with the ones to come.

Michael Stevens is an architect and principal at Dykeman Architects in Everett, and board member of the American Institute of Architects, Greater Seattle chapter.

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