The chickens have come home to roost at the US Supreme Court, but that doesn’t mean the climate fight is over. Far from it. The seeds of change have already been sown in millions of homes and businesses across the country. That’s right, humble little heat pumps are emerging as planet-saving heroes of epic proportions, and AutoGrid and Willdan have big plans for them.
Connecting the heat pump points: Step 1, Generation order
For those new to you, heat pumps are electrical devices that work like a refrigerator, only both ways. They can provide cooling or heating for HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems, depending on the need – and yes, heat pumps work even in cold climates.
Now consider the idea that electric companies can sell more kilowatts if they convince building owners—homes, offices, businesses, or whatever—to switch from a gas or oil HVAC system to an electric heat pump.
If this is starting to sound like a generational shift, it is, only on a micro scale and not on a macro scale as envisioned by the authors of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. In fact, just last year, the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory cited heat pumps as an important element in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
In an interesting twist, some utilities are also trying to convince their electricity customers to ditch propane tanks, wood stoves and other unregulated sources in favor of heat pumps. This generational shift trend is evident even in West Virginia, which helped defeat the Clean Power Plan.
Heat pumps Step 2, Virtual power plants
The role of utilities in motivating heat pump adoption is complicated because many also sell natural gas for HVAC and other appliances. However, the heat pump trend can benefit gas and electricity companies by allowing them to reduce or eliminate the need to build expensive new gas-fired “peaking” plants and new gas pipelines.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is where virtual power plants come into play. All things being equal, more heat pumps would increase the daily power generation load, eventually leading to the need for new power plants. Instead, virtual power plants allow utilities to coordinate the electricity use of thousands of individual ratepayers, prompting a shift away from normal peak usage hours.
Virtual power plants and the change of generations
VPPs focus on both load shifting and generation. Both are closely linked by the advent of cheap wind and solar energy.
Virtual power plants provide opportunities to bring more intermittent energy sources, namely wind and solar power, into the power grid while reducing the need for expensive new energy storage facilities.
Virtual power plants also fit into the trend of distributed energy sources. Even without the benefits of a full VPP, ratepayers who own rooftop solar panels and other resources can get cash from their local utility when they contribute their on-site kilowatts to the grid.
In addition, utilities are beginning to use VPPs to accelerate energy efficiency upgrades and energy efficiency in new construction.
Step 3: Energy Storage Angle, Hot Water Heater Edition
If you’re interested in the energy storage thing, join the club. VPPs can also coordinate small energy storage facilities, including electric vehicles and stationary batteries, by incentivizing their owners to participate.
All this is good for those who can afford to buy electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries. Like tens of millions of others, heat pump water heaters provide a more affordable way to connect.
Hot water is a form of energy storage. Anyone who owns a heat pump hot water heater can juice it during periods when electricity usage is low and still enjoy hot water during periods when heat pumps are requested to be off.
Heat pump water heaters are relatively new on the scene. Just a few years ago, the Electric Power Research Institute addressed this topic and noted that the price advantage over natural gas water heaters needed to be clarified.
Regardless, the global heat pump water heater market isn’t waiting for further clarification. Earlier this year, Markets and Markets ran the numbers and projected the market size to grow to $2.1 billion by 2026, up from $1.4 billion in 2020.
“Factors driving the growth of the heat pump water heater market include energy efficient technology the use of non-conventional energy sources to heat water” they noted (emphasis added).
Autogrid angle on hot water heat pumps
In this context, well-known energy management software firm AutoGrid has teamed up with what should be a well-known firm, Willdan, to prepare a scheme that deploys heat pump water heaters in virtual power plants.
The plan includes replacing gas water heaters to add a “significant level of flexible grid capacity” to California’s sprawling wholesale energy market, CAISO said.
“Flexible capacity combined with additional resources managed by the VPP AutoGrid platform strengthens the grid and helps reduce the likelihood of outages during periods of peak power demand,” they explain.
As for the overlap between VPP and generational alternation, the shift is definitely in order. AutoGrid’s goal is to enable “utilities, electricity retailers, renewable energy project developers and energy service providers to deliver clean, affordable and reliable power in a distributed energy world.”
“Partnering with Willdan places heat pump water heaters in eligible Distributed Energy Resources (DER) programs, which will have a positive impact on the environment while providing an additional revenue stream for customers,” they add.
So. PUSH. For the record, Willdan is a net power all inning. This year alone, the company won decarbonization contracts with New York City, Utah State University (one of the state’s largest energy consumers) and the National Grid. The National Grid contract is of particular interest because it includes an incentive scheme for “gas efficiency improvements across various building systems”, with the proceeds going to cover the cost of “gas efficiency projects” for low- and moderate-income ratepayers.
Next steps for climate action
The real concern about the US Supreme Court is the apparent willingness of the 6-3 majority (all appointed by Republican presidents, for the record) to overturn the nation’s entire civil and social fabric in favor of a state that is part theocratic, part authoritarian, and all seething bundles of raw emotion disguised as “originalism “.
Go for it. In light of the public reaction to the Roe v. Wade ruling, the court’s six Republican-appointed justices have already buried themselves — and their party — in the tar by revealing a long history of connections between white violence, white supremacy, and the anti-abortion movement.
The new ruling on the Clean Power Plan only makes it more likely that the November election will bolster enough new climate-fighting allies in Congress to neutralize the worst excesses of the Supreme Court’s supermajority madness — but only if enough climate voters get on board. warrior ball and run with it.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Virtual power plants, renewable energy via Willdan (screenshot).
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