For all but a handful of days of the year, William Elliot’s home in Smithers is heated by a small box in his kitchen, chugging away quietly and unobtrusively, saving him money. The cold-weather heat pump that powers his indoor unit sits outside, sucking heat from the cool air and shooting it across his open-concept house.
“It’s somewhat akin to having a forced-air furnace, but is basically in one place,” he said.
“It runs perfectly well and efficiently. We definitely have noticed the lower hydro bill.”
Elliot’s home is proof that heat pumps can and do work in B.C.’s cold north — with some important caveats. He needs a cold-weather model, rated for as low as -20C to -25C. And he needs a backup heating source — in his case electric baseboard heaters — for the few days of the year the mercury dips below that mark.
“For the most part it’s perfect, with the exception of one or two weeks of cold, -25C to -30C,” said Elliot. “Then we just crank on the baseboards, and light the wood stove. Which is what we’d have done normally.”
Heat pumps, the latest political football
Heat pumps have become a political football in recent weeks, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exempted rural homes in Atlantic Canada from the carbon tax on home heating oil. The move was controversial, and came with expanded rebates for heat pumps, dragging the devices into a highly-charged political debate.
Some of the criticism is tied up in the politics around the carbon tax. The most common — echoed by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe — is that heat pumps aren’t efficient enough to work in cold climates.
Premier David Eby feels otherwise, and is pushing the federal government to expand the rebates offered on heat pumps in Atlantic Canada to British Columbia. If successful, they could make heat pumps effectively free for the roughly 30,000 people in the province who still use an oil furnace, mainly in rural communities.
In an interview with Northern Beat, Eby said a recent meeting of premiers convinced him the devices are useful even in the province’s coldest climates. He canvassed the premiers of the Atlantic provinces — where winter temperatures can plummet to levels comparable to northern B.C. — and received assurances British Columbians will see value in heat pumps.
“The governments of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI are not idiots, they would not negotiate a deal to create a heating and cooling system for free with the federal government that doesn’t work in those provinces,” said Eby.
“I understand that people may be anxious about a new technology and whether or not it will support them when they really need it.
“But the best advice I have is these pumps are designed to work to the coldest temperatures and they do have internal backup systems to make sure people are kept warm in cold temperatures. They were designed to work in colder climates as well, because much of the world that needs heating is in colder climates.”
Heat pumps work in all but coldest weather, says BC Hydro
The use of heat pumps in B.C.’s north has jumped 80 per cent over the last 3.5 years, according to BC Hydro. Across the province, 200,000 people are using them, equivalent to around 10 per cent of Hydro customers.
“There are models that can work in temperatures down to -30C,” Hydro said in a statement.
“Recent advances in technology have created the ability for these cold climate heat pumps to be effective in all but a few of the chilliest days in some of the coldest areas of B.C.”
The statement is accurate. But so is criticism that in areas with sustained, cold winters, heat pumps require backup heat sources. And the cheapest backup is usually natural gas.
“Heat pumps, we’re not saying they don’t work, but they don’t work up here,” said Dan Davies, the BC United MLA for Peace River North.
“I’m sitting here in Fort St. John, and winter is already here and it will be until middle of April. We already know the reality right now is that the technology for heat pumps is insufficient to heat homes in most part of the province, and that would be damn near north of Hope, where we still get winters in excess of -20C, -30C or -40C for weeks on end.”
Effective cold-weather heat pump technology is new
Part of the confusion is that cold-weather heat pumps are relatively new. Prior to that, regular heat pumps were only efficient down to around -8C, making them useful mainly for Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.
“There’s definitely some misconceptions around heat pump performance in colder climates,” said Sarah Miller, research lead at the Canadian Climate Institute’s adaptation team.
“A lot of this is outdated, based on older heat pump models and installations. Cold climate heat pumps are heat pumps that can perform efficiently in very cold temperatures down to -25C.
“They are more expensive up front, but they’re high efficiency and that performance in those lower temperatures makes a big difference in bringing down lifetime costs.”
Natural gas back-up cheaper than electric in colder climates
A heat pump with an electric backup is on average 10 per cent cheaper than a heat pump with a gas furnace, according to a recent Canadian Climate Institute study. But the math changes in cities where the thermostat dips regularly below -25C, and natural gas option emerges as the cheapest option. Regardless, heat pumps offer savings and benefit the climate in both scenarios, said Miller.
“It would be a real shame if efforts to improve resilience to extreme heat resulted in a lot of central air conditioners being installed when a heat pump could have met that need instead, because you end up locking households in the fossil fuel heating,” she said.
“Air conditioning will just make the problem worse. Whereas a heat pump can save people money and address both the causes and the consequences of climate change at the same time.”
Rebate process lucrative, but onerous
The key to switching people to heat pumps will likely rest in the amount of rebates offered by the provincial and federal governments. A cold-weather heat pump can cost at least $12,000, plus installation.
Currently, a person in northern BC with a gas or oil furnace could get up to $14,000 in rebates — $9,000 from the province (that includes a relatively-new $3,000 northern rebate) and $5,000 from the feds. The amount rises to $19,500 for low-income residents.
But it is not a simple process to navigate.
Daniel Talstra, in Terrace, spent more than a year navigating the process to replace his natural gas furnace with a cold-weather heat pump with backup electric heat.
“All told I got a heat pump that cost $16,500 for roughly $13,600, so it only cost me $2,900 plus a lot of paperwork and time,” he said.
But much of the money had to be spent up-front, starting with an energy assessment by an in-person advisor. Local contractors had a waitlist of a year. The electrician alone was $2,000.
“I realized across the process it’s not going to be something a lot of people are going to be able to do,” said Talstra.
“I sent 115 emails back and forth over the 18 months.”
There were all sorts of challenges to be overcome, such as serial numbers on his unit that didn’t match the government paperwork. All the while he was putting out money he wasn’t sure he’d get back.
“In the end it was awesome, I’m thrilled,” said Talstra. “But it felt like a gamble, I was pouring a lot of energy and investment into something that might not work.
“For me I’m happy it worked out great. I enjoyed the challenge. But I don’t think there’s a lot of British Columbians for whom this process is going to be (something they are) willing or able to engage in.”
‘We just went, look, we just want the unit’
Elliot, in Smithers, didn’t even bother applying for rebates for his heat pump.
“There was some incentive program where you have to get someone in the house, and pay for it in advance, and maybe get some money back in the end,” he said.
“We just went, look, we just want the unit.”
The complexity of the installation and rebate processes is a concern experts share.
“We’ve also recommended that provinces consider implementing a one-stop-shop type approach, where basically you have a concierge service that can help consumers navigate the existing programs, identify installers, answer questions, and kind of guide them through the whole process because it can be quite complicated,” said Miller.
“So that means yes, simplifying the process for eligibility for these programs and ensuring access for lower-income households. It means looking at ways to improve access for renter households, which are largely left out of existing programs.”
Converting oil furnaces for low-income residents is priority, says Eby
The BC NDP government’s ranking cabinet minister for the north, Nathan Cullen, said he’s hearing from constituents who want heat pumps, with the incentives.
“Getting them in, having the right subsidy in place, making sure that the process is streamlined, those are things that people in the north want,” he said. “Getting off your gas and oil bill is pretty awesome.”
For the BC NDP government, getting almost-free heat pumps into the hands of rural oil furnace users is the immediate goal. Eby donned an “I Heart Heat Pumps” t-shirt at his meeting with other premiers earlier this month in Halifax.
The premier told Northern Beat he feels more federal aid is “particularly urgent for those low-income British Columbians forced to use heating oil.”
There are few signs, however, that the Eby administration is considering following Ottawa’s lead and exempting oil users from the carbon tax. The premier appears to have little interest in subsidizing what he considers dirty fossil fuel.
“I’m really frustrated the federal government has taken such a ham-handed approach to such a sensitive issue,” said Eby.
“To exempt the most polluting type of heating product for reasons that appear to everybody to be politically motivated, I wish they’d done a better job.”
Converting natural gas users to heat pumps a challenge
Converting natural gas users to heat pumps could prove a challenge for the NDP government. More than half the province still uses natural gas for heat. Moving them onto BC Hydro power is key to the NDP meeting the pollution reduction targets in its climate plan. But Eby hedged on whether he will fight to make the conversion for natural gas users also free, saying the immediate priority is those using oil.
Most natural gas users can still save money converting to a heat pump, with the right rebates, even in the coldest parts of the north, according to the Canadian Climate Institute.
“We found that installing a heat pump and having that gas backup is the cheapest option compared to installing a gas furnace and air conditioning,” said Miller.
“They get the savings because of the really high efficiency, so the heat pump will meet the full heating and cooling load the majority of the year even in the coldest parts of B.C.,” said Miller. “Then those savings sort of outweigh the fact that you then may have to use your backup system for part of the year to supplement the heat pump.”
Eby said he’s convinced heat pumps are the best emphasis for his government.
“I know the technology comes from northern Europe, countries like Norway are huge users of heat pumps, these are not tropical countries,” he said.
“It’s just not debatable that heat pumps work up to the coldest temperatures.”
Not debatable, perhaps. But still a work-in-progress for the province to find the right rebates, incentives and partnerships with Ottawa to accomplish his government’s goal of getting people to ditch fossil fuel heating.