Biden Dedicates $9B to Fund Half a Million Heat Pumps

But let's think about what those heat pumps are filled with and how they are designed.

checking refrigerant

photovs / Getty Images

In June 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden issued memoranda calling for insulation, electrification, and heatpumpification. Now the details are being released.

"DOE announced nearly $9 billion in funding allocations for states and Tribes under new state- and Tribe-administered home efficiency programs established by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act," said the Biden administration in a statement. "The new rebate program funding could support up to 1.6 million households nationwide in upgrading homes and apartments to lower energy bills, including by installing up to 500,000 heat pumps and conducting deep building retrofits through insulation and electrical wiring. In sum, these programs will make these cost-saving upgrades more accessible for low- and moderate-income families as states gain momentum toward deploying at least 12 million heat pumps by 2030." 

The statement also clarifies how the Defense Production Act will be used to promote the manufacture of heat pumps in the U.S.

"To support the leap forward in heat pump deployment driven by the Inflation Reduction Act, DOE also released a Notice of Intent and Request for Information on how to make best use of $250 million to enable more heat pump manufacturing in America, using Defense Production Act (DPA) authorities invoked by President Biden last summer and funded by the President’s Inflation Reduction Act."

Rewiring America, the nonprofit focused on electrifying everything, proposed a DPA Implementation Plan, recognizing the opportunity presented by the Inflation Reduction Act together with the DPA.

"The Biden Administration can and should leverage the initial $500 million tranche of DPA funding in the IRA to spin up the flywheel of residential building decarbonization and enable faster and more strategic deployment of IRA resources as a whole," said the nonprofit. "This should be accomplished by driving investment in up to ten new domestic heat pump manufacturing facilities."

Rewiring America

Rewiring America

Rewiring America calls for the building of 10 new heat pump facilities, with the DPA covering half the cost, which could then crank out a million heat pumps per year—about a quarter of all heat pump sales; most heat pumps that are sold today are built in Asia. They also call for advanced market commitments (AMCs) to deploy heat pumps to the 4.65 million low income Americans who are now locked into fossil fuels: "With the implementation of the Defense Production Act for heat pumps, the federal government has a unique opportunity to kick-start the rapid electrification of the U.S. economy."

The White House and Rewiring America both express concern that there will not be enough trained labor to install these heat pumps, and the White House memo promises "$260 million in workforce development programs to support energy efficiency and building upgrades funded by the Inflation Reduction Act and by the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law."

Global Warming Potential (GWP) of refrigerants.

IPCC via Air Conditioning News

One of the biggest problems in training installers is the issue of refrigerant leaks. That's why we previously called for the DPA to be used to change the rules on refrigerants and immediately approve the use of hydrocarbons like R-290 (propane) and R-600a (isobutane) in heat pumps everywhere in the country.

As the chart above shows, they have far lower global warming potential than hydrofluorocarbons. This means changing building codes and other regulations that are unnecessarily restrictive. You are allowed to have a 20-pound tank of propane connected to your barbecue but not allowed to have 2.2 pounds of propane in your heat pump.

Inside a Gradient


But also, if the government is going to be investing in heat pump production, they should be looking closely at what is called monobloc or monoblock designs. In conventional "split" systems, the condenser is outside the home, and the evaporator is inside, connected by copper tubes filled with refrigerant. In Monoblocs, the two main components of the heat pump are outside, with water used to transfer the heat or cold to the inside. These are more common in Europe where hot water radiators are common, but the cute little Gradient heat pump works this way, where the evaporator it is connected to a heat exchanger, transferring heat to a secondary coolant loop that isn't under pressure. This could be a model for bigger units, where the water is fed to a fan coil inside.

Installing a monoblock can be done by a plumber, and there is no chance of a refrigerant leak. The water isn't under extreme pressure, so it doesn't need a copper pipe. They are a bit less efficient, and in the north, one needs to add a lot of propylene glycol to keep the lines from freezing, but it significantly reduces the amount of refrigerant needed and the skillset needed to install the unit.

As the United Kingdom head of LG, a manufacturer of monoblocks, noted: "Because a monobloc does not require someone with F Gas qualifications to get involved in the use of refrigerants, they are an excellent additional string to the bow of most professional heating installers."

Green Building Advisor quoted a British study and noted that "10% of the residential heat pumps they surveyed had detectable leaks and that 3.8% of the total refrigerant charge was lost annually. Catastrophic leaks, in which systems lost 50% or more of their initial charge, were responsible for the vast majority—about 92%—of refrigerant losses." John Harrod said, "If the 3 to 4 pounds of R-410A in a small ductless heat pump system were to escape into the atmosphere, it would cause as much warming as a gasoline car’s annual emissions. Larger multi-zone systems contain more refrigerant; they also have more piping connections, and thus more opportunities for leaks."

Imagine this multiplied by millions—much of the gains from reducing carbon dioxide emissions could be eaten up by refrigerant losses.

This is why we have to reduce demand. A 2021 Vancouver study by the Integral Group looking at the leakage of refrigerants concluded, "System refrigerant charge should be minimized with passive building design features to reduce peak loads and avoid equipment oversizing."

I understand the "fist bumps for heat pumps" thing but continue to stress that we need both insulation and heatpumpification. And if we are going to have a massive investment and rollout of heat pumps, let's make sure that they are designed to use low-impact refrigerants and to be easy to install. "Fist bumps for R-290 monoblocks" doesn't quite have the ring to it, but that is where we should be going.