Heat Pumps Gaining Popularity on the Prairies, But Efficacy and Savings Questioned

Regina's Catherine Gibson says she's already seeing savings by switching to a more efficient natural gas furnace. She's hoping her new heat pump will reduce her utility bills even more this winter. (Ethan Williams/CBC)

Amidst growing concerns about climate change and energy savings, Saskatchewan residents are increasingly turning to air-source heat pumps as a viable alternative to traditional heating and cooling systems, according to CBC News. Catherine Gibson of south Regina, who recently installed such a pump, remarked, “We had an old furnace and an even older air conditioner, so it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Gibson’s electric-powered heat pump, which also involves the use of a natural gas furnace purchased in 2022, has shown a noticeable drop in her power and gas bills. The device works by absorbing heat inside the house and releasing it outside during summer, and reversely extracting heat from the outside air in winter, even at temperatures well below zero.

Simon Landsman, a sales representative with Regina Plumbing and Heating, confirms the rising popularity of heat pumps, attributing it to their energy efficiency and greener footprint. “A lot of people want to go greener [and get] a little bit better savings on your energy bills,” Landsman stated.

However, the efficacy of heat pumps in the harsh Prairie winters has been a subject of debate. The Saskatchewan government has expressed skepticism, stating through CBC News that it will not offer rebates for heat pumps as “they simply do not work as a primary heat source in the climate across the Prairie provinces.” Contrarily, the Government of Canada, offering substantial rebates for pump installation, cites on its website that newer models can provide heating in temperatures as low as -15°C to -25°C.

James Tucker with his heat pump that replaced his old gas furnace. Julia Simon/NPR

Sarah Riddell, a policy researcher at Efficiency Canada, challenges this notion, asserting that newer cold climate heat pump models can heat to around -30°C due to technological advancements. “You’d still have a completely warm home that can heat to really any temperature that you’d ever see in Canada,” Riddell explained.

Despite these advancements, Martin Luymes, Vice-President of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute, points out that in provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, where electricity is predominantly generated from fossil fuels, heat pumps might be less attractive. A 2022 Natural Resources Canada study found that greenhouse gas emissions could actually increase if homes in cities like Regina, Calgary, and Edmonton switch from natural gas heating to a heat pump.

Yet, the International Energy Agency’s 2022 report indicates that globally, heat pumps can reduce emissions by at least 20% compared to gas and up to 80% in countries with cleaner electricity.

The report also suggests potential savings in greenhouse gases if Prairie homes switch to heat pumps from other electric heat sources or oil. Furthermore, substantial yearly energy bill savings have been noted, especially when transitioning from oil heating.

Heat pumps can work for both heating and cooling. You can think of a heat pump as an air conditioner that can also work backwards. Julia Simon/NPR

For homeowners like Jake Dingman from Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, the decision to switch from oil heating to a ground-source heat pump was influenced by cost considerations. After weighing the high expense of natural gas installation against the more stable pricing of a geothermal system, Dingman opted for the latter, expecting his electricity bills to be more manageable.

However, the Natural Resources report clarifies that savings with a heat pump compared to a natural gas furnace are not substantial in the Prairies due to the cheaper unit cost of gas energy. The report also compares the operational costs of heat pumps and gas furnaces across Canada, finding minimal annual savings in most regions.

The Canadian Climate Institute’s report earlier this year indicated that for certain types of housing in Edmonton, a heat pump with a gas backup could be slightly more economical than gas heating alone.

In summary, while heat pumps are emerging as a popular, environmentally friendlier heating option in the Canadian Prairies, their effectiveness, impact on emissions, and cost savings remain complex and dependent on various factors, including local climate and energy sourcing.