Heat Pumps and Net Zero

Recently, the Energy Efficiency Council and the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity released a report commissioned by the Australian Government titled “Harnessing heat pumps for net zero”. This in-depth report focused on how heat pumps could be rolled out to assist in reaching zero emission targets. 

Heat pumps are an energy-efficient technology for providing heating and cooling services. They work by moving heat energy from one place to another, whilst also changing temperature. 1 

The output of heat pumps is known as the coefficient of performance (COP). This is the ratio between the output of heat to the energy required to produce the output. Typically, heat pumps in Australia have a COP of three or more, while conventional electric heaters have a maximum of one, and gas boilers have a COP of less than one.2   

Heat pumps are in common use in applications such as refrigeration, residential air conditioning, and the cooling of commercial buildings. Broader utilisation of heat pump technology can provide remarkable energy efficiency, and the Harnessing heat pumps for net zero report focusses on three areas where this can be achieved – residential, commercial buildings and industrial settings. 

Residential settings 

The residential setting is the most advanced in the uptake of heat pumps in Australia.  Reverse cycle air conditioning systems is the most common application.  

The report discusses the use of heat pumps in new builds using geothermal sources as well as those for pool heating.  But the application generating the most excitement in the residential space is the potential to reduce emissions just by changing to heat pump hot water systems (HPHWS). Most water heaters in Australia currently rely on electric resistive elements or gas. If a HPHWS is incorporated into a house, this can increase the potential to reduce emissions from water heating by anywhere from 65% to 75% compared to electric resistive systems and close to 100% for natural gas appliances.3 While resistive heat technologies upfront costs are lower, the savings for the consumer and the environment in the long term for an HPHWS is worth noting.  

The report notes that, to date, a lack of understanding of the benefits of the system amongst installers has hindered uptake. Recently, the Victorian State Government announced training for plumbers to better educate them in this. The report is also calling for awareness campaigns for consumers and the expansion or establishment of installation programs for vulnerable households as well as continuing financial incentives. 

Large Commercial Buildings 

For large commercial buildings (i.e., those with central plantrooms), much work needs to be done in the area of utilising heat pumps for centralised heating, even in new builds. While heat pumps are well established for cooling purposes, if we are to meet our 2050 targets, action is required urgently.  Fossil fuel systems such as gas boilers have an estimated life of 25 years, which only allows for two replacement cycles before 2050.  

As heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) accounts for 50% of energy costs in a commercial building, the opportunity to embrace emission reducing technology is either at the time of upgrade or in retrofitting. Leadership is required to ensure this technology is taken up, with the report suggesting heat pump installation in leading edge new commercial builds to lead the way. Australia has a highly skilled HVAC workforce with little or no experience in the deployment of heat pumps in commercial buildings. This is an area that needs to be addressed. Another challenge is the supply chain, as whilst there are pumps available for this purpose, demand is currently low.  

To ignite interest and to develop understanding, the report suggests the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) fund a major program to highlight heat pump retrofit projects. They also suggest aligning building codes to the COAG Energy Council’s Trajectory for low energy buildings – Existing buildings which encompasses efforts to improve the energy performance of existing homes and build energy efficient new homes. The report also suggests that Australia should implement systems to better engage with well-established supply chains. 

Industrial applications 

Industrial processes provide the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions with the roll out of heat pumps due to the low penetration currently.  

In agriculture, the lack of reticulated gas and electricity in some areas requires the use of generation systems. Heat pump deployment would aid in reducing high reliance on these systems.  

For manufacturing and food processing, the challenge facing the industry is the advanced planning associated with replacement of existing infrastructure. The financial and timing aspects of replacing equipment when it breaks down is important to consider, as expediency in replacement, currently heavily dictates like for like. Lack of knowledge and expertise of the benefits and advantages of heat pumps affects this decision. The report suggests that improved data and information systems to properly map and model energy demands would assist in this decision-making process. The report also found there are only a very small number of skilled industrial refrigeration contractors with manufacturing processing experience available to advise on heat pump solutions. All of this combines to impact the transition to heat pump technologies. However, the long-term benefits of this transition are clear. 

A pilot heat pump demonstration program specific to manufacturers and food processes, similar to what has been suggested for commercial buildings, is recommended by the report.  

The lack of knowledge and understanding at all levels and applications appears to be holding back the deployment of heat pumps. The report suggests that knowledge sharing as well as support for pilot projects is an important step in enhancing this understanding.  However, as the support for heat pump technology evolves, it is important to ensure that the grid is protected, that supply chains can meet demand, and that we have the workers trained in the skills required to embrace this technology. 

To read the report in full, visit Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (A2EP)

1. Page 5. Energy Efficiency Council and Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity 2023, Harnessing heat pumps for net zero, Energy Efficiency Council, Melbourne. 

2. Page 5. Energy Efficiency Council and Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity 2023, Harnessing heat pumps for net zero, Energy Efficiency Council, Melbourne. 

3. Page 58 Energy Efficiency Council and Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity 2023, Harnessing heat pumps for net zero, Energy Efficiency Council, Melbourne.