Climate change has the odd effect of making many of us inordinately excited about appliances we never used to care about. Suddenly, all the background machines, which have up to now been unconsciously powering our lives, have taken on outsized importance. Some of them have the potential to provide the essential services we depend on while, at the same time, not destroying our planet like the fossil fuel powered machines of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ductless heat pumps are a prime example. In the past, many of us used gas furnaces and boilers to heat our homes and burned fuels that emitted copious amounts of CO2 in the process. Now, with the magical heat pump, we have access to efficient electric technologies for heating and cooling that can be powered entirely by renewable energy, and thus be carbon neutral.
Brief History and Growth of Ductless Heat Pumps
Ductless heat pumps (DHPs) were developed in Japan after World War 2. They were invented and perfected on an island that doesn’t have easy access to fossil fuels, and so they are the ideal heating/cooling system for our modern world given they don’t rely on combustion and are also incredibly efficient.
They condition 90% of Japanese homes, and worldwide their usage is growing like crazy, with an expected doubling of heat pump sales in the next five years. In the UK, sales are projected to increase 20 fold, and in the US, some areas are seeing sales growth north of 40% every year.
My family has used ductless heat pumps for our heating and cooling since 2012 when we bought our house. The gas furnace that came with our house was old, and we made the decision to replace it with new ductless heat pumps. (A major perk is that mounting the units on the wall saved valuable floor space in the garage, formerly dedicated to the gas furnace, which we converted into an apartment). We had seen them used in Europe and figured, even 9 years ago when the electrification movement was in its infancy, that heating with efficient electricity would allow us to reduce our carbon emissions with the solar panels we planned to install on our roof.
What is Ductless?
But what is a Ductless Heat Pump (a.k.a. mini-split)? Basically, it is a heating/cooling system that is different from a traditional furnace in several ways:
1. DHPs don’t have air ducts. Rather than forcing hot air through potentially leaky ducts, ductless systems place an indoor device on a wall and an outdoor unit (similar to a typical AC unit) which provides heating and cooling. This means no air escapes through leaky ducts, creating more efficient conditioning.
2. DHPs don’t burn things. Ductless heat pumps use electricity to provide heating and cooling. Electricity is rapidly moving towards being fully renewable and thus will soon produce zero emissions (the Biden administration set a goal of 2035 for example).
3. DHPs are like refrigerators in reverse. Instead of burning fuel, ductless heat pumps create heating and cooling through refrigeration. This means they capture heat from outside (even when it’s cold) and move it into your house, and vice versa for cooling. It’s pretty magical. The refrigerants used by DHPs can be potent greenhouse gases themselves, but luckily the world is moving quickly to using better, more environmentally friendly refrigerants (check out this website for a new type of refrigerant called R32).
4. DHPs are incredibly efficient. This is because a) no air leaks through ducts b) they heat the room they are in (rather than the whole house), c) moving heat is vastly more efficient than creating it, and d) they use inverter systems (see below). As a result, they typically use three times less energy than old electric resistance heaters and six times less than gas.
Demystifying a couple DHP terms
Speaking of efficiency, let’s demystify a couple of terms associated with ductless heat pumps.
SEER — SEER is a number that measures how well a technology provides cooling. The higher the number, the more efficient the unit. Most new air conditioners have a SEER between 13 and 21, but ductless can often see a SEER over 30, which gives you an idea of how efficient they are. If you’re in a warm climate, SEER is especially important.
HSPF — HSPF stands for Heating Season Performance Factor and complements the SEER rating in that it measures how efficiently a heat pump heats a space. The minimum required HSPF rating in the US is 7.7. An 8.5 score is considered good, and over 10 is excellent. If you’re in a cooler climate, where the predominant energy use is for heating, HSPF is most important.
I interviewed Tim Sharp, from the Heat Pump Store here in Oregon, which has installed thousands of ductless heat pumps over the last decade. He said that you’ll want your DHP to be most efficient in heating if you’re in a cold climate, and cooling if you’re in a warm climate. People in the northern US should probably focus on HSPF, while in the southern US, people should focus on SEER. Tim also said that investing in a DHP with higher scores will be more expensive up front, but the additional cost usually pays for itself over time through energy savings.
Ductless Heat Pumps in Cold weather
I also learned from Tim that DHPs were originally developed to provide only cooling (like a refrigerator), yet they have “constantly gotten better for heating purposes in almost every environment.” If you’re in a cold climate, you probably want to think about the “extended capacity” models, which are able to provide more heating. According to Tim, they don’t cost significantly more and offer more BTUs per hour output. Read more on how to use heat pumps in cold climates here.
Ductless vs. Ducted
If you have existing ductwork in a space, you may consider a different approach when transitioning to heat pumps. Not all heat pumps are ductless. You can get central heat pumps that work with a typical central AC system, and provide heating that blows that hot air through ducts. These central heat pumps are not much more expensive than central air conditioning, and many people think that swapping out every central AC system for a ducted heat pump is an important strategy to quickly get us off natural gas and reduce carbon emissions.
Ductless, on the other hand, is a no-brainer when you’re adding heating or cooling to a room without any ductwork. And DHPs also offer greater efficiency as well as economic and environmental advantages over a central ducted heating system. In addition to the efficiencies mentioned above, ductless heat pumps use inverter technology, which means they run at variable speeds. Tim from the Heat Pump Store compares this to starting your car at a red light. Inverters slowly rev the engine when starting and stopping, while typical central AC systems gun it and brake hard, meaning they are much less efficient. All DHPs use inverter technology, while virtually all conventional (ducted) heat pumps don’t, meaning DHPs are much more efficient.
My family chose ductless heat pumps in our house, rather than a whole house heat pump, even though we had existing ductwork from our old gas furnace because of the increased efficiency.
Humidity and air quality
Though ductless heat pumps help to dehumidify a room, it is not their primary purpose. In places with humidity problems, a separate dehumidifier may still be necessary. Similarly, DHPs have built in air filters, but can’t generally filter air to the extent that ducted systems do with high rated MERV filters. Tim from The Heat Pump Store said that air filtering is considered a separate system, from heating/cooling, in places where heat pumps are most prevalent, and people typically buy another device for air filtration.
There are four leading brands of ductless heat pumps: Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, LG, and Daikin. Most of the top brands are Japanese, given they first developed the technology. This NY Times article has some solid reviews on each of these four brands.
Choosing a contractor
Finding a good installer is important. Many contractors may try to talk you out of electric heating and cooling (and into gas). Plus, you’ll want someone to help you correctly size a system for your needs. That means someone with lots of experience in ductless heat pump systems as well as a good reputation and reviews. Getting three bids is always a solid strategy. One pro tip is to look on a manufacturer’s page for contractors in your area that are certified to install their product.
Cost and Aesthetics
As Tim told me in our interview, ductless heat pumps aren’t a panacea. Any technology has its downsides. As my wife points out, the indoor equipment that sits high on your wall takes up space and isn’t the most beautiful thing in the world. Ductless Heat Pumps can also be expensive. A system with a single indoor unit can run $3,000–$5,000, but if you’re putting multiple “heads” throughout your house, costs can quickly go over $10,000.
Yet, for me, after 9 years of heating and cooling our house with ductless heat pumps, and with the climate emergency we find ourselves in, any drawbacks to ductless heat pumps are vastly outweighed by their immense benefits. Heat pumps are the heating and cooling technology for this era of climate change, and ductless heat pumps are the most efficient versions of this technology. They allow us to get off fossil fuels and efficiently heat and cool, in any climate, with clean electricity.
Learn more and do a deep dive into Ductless Heat Pumps with Tim from the Heat Pump Store in a recent webinar I hosted with Electrify Now, and let us know about your thoughts and experiences with ductless heat pumps in the comments below!
BIDIRECTIONAL Act introduced in US Senate to promote electric school buses feeding grid
A new bill introduced Friday by US Senator Angus King of Maine could unlock the true potential of electric school buses and provide stability to communities in need. The BIDIRECTIONAL Act would “create a program dedicated to deploying electric school buses with bidirectional vehicle-to-grid (V2G) flow capability.”
Zero-emission electric school buses are being deployed nationwide as state leaders and school districts look to protect the children and communities they vow to serve. New information shows school districts that replace just one diesel school bus with an electric one can reduce toxic emissions by 54,000 pounds a year.
However, the benefits of electric school buses don’t stop there. The massive batteries they utilize also make perfect energy storage devices. Several automakers and charging companies are experimenting with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology that enables vehicles to send energy back to the grid.
Manufacturers of electric pickup trucks (like the Ford F-150) and other EVs have dived into bi-directional charging, but this technology makes even more sense for electric school buses because they have large batteries that sit most of the day. To illustrate this point, Thomas Built Buses partnered with Proterra to show two electric school buses can send 10 MWh total back to the grid, enough to power around 600 homes.
Senator King wants to capitalize on this ability with the BIDIRECTIONAL Act to promote the widespread deployment of electric school buses with V2G capability to improve community stability.
The BIDIRECTIONAL Act is designed to accelerate adoption of EV school buses while using them for more than just a ride to school.
According to Senator King, the BIDIRECTIONAL Act will:
- Establish a Department of Energy (DOE) program to roll out electric school buses designed with V2G capabilities in communities that need them most.
- Require the DOE to report on current V2G initiatives (such as Thomas Built and Proterra) while also requiring electricity providers to consider bi-directional integration.
Senator King commented on the initiative, stating:
Vehicle-to-grid school buses are another common sense tool that can help to create a reliable grid, promote clean energy, and cut costs for local towns and school districts.
The BIDIRECTIONAL Act will assist school districts across Maine and America transition to electric buses and make sure these vehicles provide greater stability to their communities. Combined with electric bus investments in the Inflation Reduction Act, this will be an important step towards unlocking America’s clean energy future. It’s a simple, win-win bill and I hope it can get bipartisan support across Congress.
Several major electric school bus makers and other organizations are backing the bill, such as Blue Bird, Highland Electric, Lion Electric, Nuuve, Proterra, and Xcel Energy.
Electric school buses with V2G are a no-brainer. Not only will they reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protecting the communities they serve, but they can also play a key role in providing energy stability to communities in need.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced it would be nearly doubling EPA clean school bus program funding to $965 million in its initial round . Federal funding is a huge first step, but strong state leadership is also necessary if these clean machines are going to become widely adopted. Virginia, for example, just surpassed 500,000 electric school bus miles driven thanks to a state initiative to roll out 13,0000 electric school buses in 2019. They now have the nation’s second largest fleet of electric school buses.
I believe Senator King is wise in proposing this bill. I truly believe electric school buses have unlimited potential waiting to be unlocked, and the BIDIRECTIONAL Act can do just that.
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Could offshore wind sites host edible seaweed farms? The Swedes think so
Stockholm-headquartered renewable energy developer OX2 has signed letters of intent with Swedish edible seaweed companies Nordic SeaFarm and KOBB to explore the possibility of seaweed farming at one of OX2’s offshore wind farms.
Seaweed and offshore wind
OX2’s Galatea-Galene huge 1.7 gigawatt offshore wind farm will be sited off Halland, a county on the western coast of Sweden. It’s named after two Greek sea nymphs, Galatea and Galene, and consists of two sub-areas around 15.5 miles (25 km) outside the cities of Falkenberg and Varberg.
Galatea-Galene is expected to consist of up to 101 wind turbines and generate around 6 to 7 terawatt-hours of clean electricity per year. That’s the equivalent of the average annual electricity consumption of more than 1.2 million Swedish households. (There are 4.8 million households in Sweden, for perspective.)
This offshore wind farm will be developed in a single phase. Construction is expected to commence in 2028 and enter into commercial operation in 2030.
Simon Johansson, CEO of Nordic SeaFarm, and Benjamin Ajo, chairman of the board of KOBB, said in a joint statement [via Offshorewind.biz]:
We see great opportunities, in collaboration with both the fishing industry and the wind power industry, to both maintain and create new jobs when we investigate the possibilities of creating a new industry in Sweden in the form of large-scale aquaculture.
Developing the national food supply while [offshore wind] farms contribute to stopping the negative effects of climate change are more positive aspects.
All seaweed needs to grow is saltwater and sunlight. It’s a superfood that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, and particularly high in iodine, so it’s very nutritious. (Note that crispy seaweed in Chinese restaurants is actually cabbage.)
It can be used to wrap sushi, in soups and salads, in snacks and instant noodles, and as livestock food.
Seaweed also provides a source of food for marine life. In April, Electrek reported that a groundbreaking study found that the first US offshore wind farm has had no negative effect on fish and has even proven to be beneficial.
Here’s a short video from Nordic SeaFarm that shows how the company grows and harvests seaweed for consumption:
Pairing seaweed farms and offshore wind farms seems like an inspired idea.
Seaweed’s ability to absorb toxins and other contaminants from the sea make it environmentally friendly, but that’s not what humans want to consume. That’s where seaweed growers come in: they test the seaweed for safety and quality.
Any multipurpose sustainable use of an offshore wind farm, particularly one that provides both clean energy and nutritious food that doesn’t require either fertilizer or fresh water to grow, is a win. It’s also another example of innovation that the clean energy revolution is bringing about in the climate change fight.
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EPA doubles electric school bus funding to almost $1B after overwhelming initial demand
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday that the agency will almost double its funding for electric school buses to close to $1 billion after school districts from all 50 states applied for rebates.
Electric school buses are quickly taking over streets around the US as school districts and state leaders see how they can benefit the communities they serve in.
According to Dominion Energy, a power provider promoting the use of EVs for a cleaner and sustainable future, replacing one diesel bus can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 54,000 pounds annually.
With help from Dominion’s initiatives, the second largest electric bus fleet in the US just crossed 500,000 service miles. By implementing EV buses, Virginia school districts were able to avoid 447.7 short tons of greenhouse gases.
These toxic fumes are known to creep into the bus’s interior while the bus is idling, harming the health of students taking them every day. A 2002 Yale study found dangerous particle levels were five to ten times higher while buses were stopped.
Although new standards have come along since then, it’s still not enough to limit the exposure when you can cut it out altogether.
Not only do electric school buses produce zero emissions, but they can also save school districts money on fuel and repair costs in the long run. For example, The Modesto Unified School District in California, which ordered 30 Blue Bird EV school buses, expects to save $250,000 a year on fuel.
With federal and many state funding options, there’s never been a better time to convert to an all-electric school bus fleet.
EPA doubles funding for electric school bus fleets across the US
The EPA Clean School Bus Program, part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provides $5 billion in funding for electric school buses through the next five years.
The first round of funding, announced in May, was supposed to free up $500 million, but after overwhelming demand from school districts across all 50 states, the EPA will now be almost doubling it to $965 million.
The EPA received about 2,000 applications, amounting to nearly $4 billion in funding, with over 90% submitting for zero-emission electric school buses. Sue Gander, director of the electric school bus initiative at the World Resources Institute, highlights the demand for fully electric options, claiming:
There’s more to the story. The overwhelming demand for electric school buses, over any other fuel type, is striking. Applicants across the country chose electric buses over propane at a rate of 10 to 1. There’s no doubt we’re entering a new, electric era in student transportation, one with massive benefits for our kids’ health, climate and the economy.
With requests for over eight times the initial funding round, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said on the program’s success thus far:
America’s school districts delivered this message loud and clear – we must replace older, dirty diesel school buses. Together, we can reduce climate pollution, improve air quality, and reduce the risk of health impacts like asthma for as many as 25 million children who ride the bus every day.
The EPA said it’s “moving swiftly” to review applications and expects the list of winning applicants to be released in October 2022. Applicants will be selected through a lottery-based system.
Another $1 billion round of funding for electric school buses will be in the Fiscal Year 2023, according to the EPA. The agency plans the next funding program to launch in the next few months, including a grant competition.
However, more may need to be done. Senator Carper, chair of the senate committee on environmental and public works, talks about the need for further funding, saying:
Given the response to the availability of these dollars, it’s clear that more funding is needed. I look forward to working with Administrator Regan, the rest of the Biden Administration, and my colleagues in Congress to build on this progress so that more communities can realize the clean air and energy saving benefits of these cleaner vehicles.
Will we have access to more funding for electric school buses? Time will tell. If the initial demand is any indication, school districts are ready and willing. It’s time to get the funding to make it happen.
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