A heat pump installed in Yellowknife. Photo: Arctic Energy Alliance
“Roll out heat pumps and phase out oil for heating,” the Prime Minister’s office declared on Thursday as the federal government said it was pausing carbon tax for many rural families on their home heating oil.
Whether or not the territory feels the benefit, the federal initiative is clear: get people off heating oil and move them to heat pumps. There’s even a program worth thousands of dollars per family designed to “make the average heat pump free for lower-income households.”
The federal government has said it wants households to use the three-year pause to make the switch.
But before you click that link and merrily acquire a heat pump, if you’re living in the NWT, maybe read the rest of this article first.
Heat pumps have been called “reverse refrigerators.” Your fridge uses a refrigerant to transfer heat outside and keep the food cold, but a heat pump uses a refrigerant to transfer heat inside and keep you warm (or heat your water). They are powered by electricity and are seen as a far cleaner solution, environmentally, than oil or the like.
The Arctic Energy Alliance, which administers territorial and federal rebate programs for energy-efficient solutions in the NWT, has been studying heat pumps for the past year.
So far, said Arctic Energy Alliance boss Mark Heyck, there are two problems: the first is the cold, and the second is the cost of electricity.
“Heat pumps lose efficiency the colder it gets. You reach your sweet spot around -15C or -20C. They’re fairly efficient up to that point. Anything colder and they lose their efficiency,” Heyck told Cabin Radio on Friday.
Some models that can operate well down to -35C are in development, but NWT winters outstrip -35C on a regular basis. The technology is expected to continue improving over time, but there is not yet a reliable, proven heat pump that will handle -40C as efficiently as it can handle -10C or -20C.
Meanwhile, the cost of electricity in the NWT is generally around four times the price in the south. If you switch to a heat pump in the North, you’re having to pay far more to run it than a southern counterpart would.
“The cost of providing that heat, or the heat pump, can get pretty high, pretty fast if it’s not operating efficiently,” said Heyck.
Nor is the territory currently producing enough electricity for a mass migration to heat pumps to work.
“If everybody in the Northwest Territories all of a sudden decided to move to heat pumps, we simply wouldn’t have the electrical capacity to serve that,” said Heyck.
“If it does prove to be viable, then it’s something we will need to look at phasing in, working with utilities to make sure that the capacity is there.”
If not heat pumps, then what?
The Arctic Energy Alliance is approaching a year since it first installed some test heat pumps in Yellowknife. By the end of the year, Heyck hopes to have an interim report – but the project will run for one more year, to have two years of data before final conclusions are drawn up. That’ll provide clearer evidence about the current capabilities of heat pumps in the North.
In the meantime, Heyck says residents who heard the federal call to leave heating oil for heat pumps might be better off picking biomass – wood or pellet stoves.
He calls that “the most feasible, realistic, proven alternative for the NWT.”
Rebates for wood and pellet stoves have doubled in the NWT and now pay 50 percent of a stove’s cost, up to $2,000, Heyck said. He characterized wood pellets as much less expensive than oil.
“We’ve been doing it for years up here in the Northwest Territories,” he said.
“Electrification, generally speaking, whether it’s on the heating side or on the transportation side, is going to require additional capacity. Those are bigger questions for the territorial government and utilities to answer. But biomass is a popular, traditional source of heating here that continues to grow in popularity.”