Heat pumps are highly efficient electrical devices that can heat and cool homes. The tech could save Europe an estimated 60 billion euros in annual natural gas import costs.
The invasion of Ukraine has put the US and Europe on a wartime mission to abandon Russian fossil fuels. This series looks at speeding up zero-carbon alternatives by lowering political and financial barriers. Sign up here to get the next story sent to your inbox.
Heat pumps are emerging as a key technology for securing Europe’s energy independence from Russian natural gas.
The highly efficient electrical devices extract warmth from air, liquids or other sources to heat and cool homes and provide hot water, producing more energy than they consume. The war in Ukraine is accelerating the European Union’s efforts to replace fossil fuel heating with heat pumps to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. In March, the European Commission unveiled its REPowerEU initiative that calls for doubling the deployment of heat pumps over the next five years as part of a plan to eliminate dependence on Russian gas. The EU imports 90% of its natural gas, 40% of which comes from Russia.
“Europe sleep-walked into a situation where we were increasingly reliant on Russian gas over the decades and we just have to break the habit,” says Richard Lowes, a heat pump expert and senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a multinational organization that works on energy decarbonization policy.
Although heat pump installations are rising due to mandates and incentives offered by some countries, they currently supply only 2.5% of the EU’s heating and cooling demand, according to the Regulatory Assistance Project. “The fact is a lot of people have gas heating, they’re used to it and there’s a whole system built for gas that we have to breach,” says Lowes.
Before the war, the EU projected that heat pumps would cut natural gas consumption in buildings 40% by the end of the decade, according to a March 2022 report. That would save nearly 60 billion euros ($63 billion) in annual natural gas import costs, according to estimates.
“Heating was completely unsexy before,” says Thomas Nowak, secretary general of the European Heat Pump Association, an industry group. “Now people are discussing heat pumps at their cocktail parties.”
Retrofitting existing housing to run on heat pumps, however, can be a complicated and expensive proposition, experts say. That’s particularly the case with apartment buildings that are home to nearly half of the EU’s population.
That’s because heating sources, fuels, financial incentives and policies vary widely across Europe and within countries. Oil, gas and coal supply nearly 83% of heating in EU nations, with gas accounting for 66% of fossil fuel boilers, the report states.
How heat is delivered also differs from country to country. For instance, “district heating” dominates in some urban areas and in Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic states. A central source, such as a boiler or industrial facility, heats water that is distributed through an underground network of pipes to radiators in homes and apartment buildings.
In other countries, a large gas boiler is installed in an apartment building to heat the entire structure or small boilers are placed in individual apartments. (U.S-style furnaces are rare in Europe.)