Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom

Bill McKibben
Installing heat pump - This Machine Fights Fascism (an air source heat pump being installed last September in a house built in the 1930s in Folkestone, UK).

Feb. 27, 2022

It’s amazing to watch people across the planet rallying to the defense of brave Ukraine—choirs singing outside Russian embassies, soccer teams refusing to play Russian teams. And it’s wonderful to watch governments rise to the occasion: shutting off airspace to Russian airplanes, or kicking them off international banking protocols. All of it helps enormously in the moment—but little of it goes straight to the heart of Russia’s power which (besides nuclear weapons) is almost entirely based on its production of gas and oil. Remember—60% of its export earnings are hydrocarbons. For decades Europe has cowered for fear Moscow would turn off the tap.

But it need cower no longer. New technology—affordable and workable—means Europeans can heat their homes with electricity instead of gas. And if we wanted to we could—before next winter comes—help enormously in this task. President Biden should immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get American manufacturers to start producing electric heat pumps in quantity, so we can ship them to Europe where they can be installed in time to dramatically lessen Putin’s power. The most recent estimates from Europe I’ve seen is that the current electric grid could handle fifty million heat pumps. We’re not going to get that many over there in a year—but any large number hacks away at Putin’s power.

I’ve spent the weekend talking with various government officials, most of whom didn’t want to be quoted by name for reasons that will become clearer below. But they insist several things are clear

  1. The Defense Production Act allows this to happen without having to convince the obstructionists in our Congress. Passed during the Korean War, it was used most recently by President Trump to mandate production of ventilators and President Biden, on his second day in office, to mandate production of decent masks. In September Biden also used the DPA to expedite the production of 4,000 miles of fire hose, because the wildfires in California had stretched the supply. The Lawfare blog had an excellent recent recap of the DPA, explaining:

    ‘Title III of the DPA (“Expansion of Productive Capacity and Supply”) allows the executive to provide financial incentives—such as loans, loan guarantees, direct purchases and purchase commitments—to incentivize domestic manufacturers and to ensure that the federal government has the capacity to produce critical items. The authorities include the ability not only to provide economic incentives but also to procure and install equipment in private industrial facilities to achieve the necessary production goals.’

  2. If manufacturers had a guaranteed federal contract, they could ramp up production quickly: perhaps by fifty percent in a month, and before the summer was out by far more. There would be supply chain issues—”there always are”—but the experts think they’d be manageable. Some of the components currently come from China—but Biden has already said he wants to move such manufacturing back to our shores, and this would be a way to do it.

  3. We could provide them at cost—or below cost—to Europeans, just as we did with the “lend-lease” program in the run-up to World War II. Europeans know how to install them—about a quarter of heating units installed across the continent last year were these electric heat pumps. At the moment, they make better models than we do, but their manufacturers are operating at capacity. American air-conditioner makers, like Carrier and Trane, could produce them—an air-source heat pump is essentially an air-conditioner that you can reverse. The Department of Energy, in a smaller way, announced plans to bolster the industry in November, when Kamala Harris and DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm launched a partnership with six manufacturers. To give you a sense of the political attractiveness of the proposition, they are headquartered in Florida, Texas (two), Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina. Can you say ‘swing state’?

  4. If America did this, it would jump start our own capacity—which means, as one expert put it, “what you do in Montenegro this year helps in Minnesota two years out,” as we try to wean American from expensive and dirty fossil fuels. I’m writing this in a house warmed (during a snow squall this afternoon) by a heat pump connected to the solar panels in the yard and the battery in the basement. It’s good stuff.

  5. It helps with the climate crisis too—some at least. At first some of the electricity to run the heat pumps will come from gas--but heat pumps are much more efficient than gas boilers, so even that will reduce use. (Germany would also have good reason to keep its nuclear reactors going a few more years, something it may now be studying.) And of course each year, as we build out ever-cheaper sun, wind, and batteries, the grid that supplies these heat pumps is going to get greener. We have to do it if we’re going to meet our various climate targets—so we might as well do it now when it will dramatically weaken the power of Putin’s thuggery.

I’ve begun to lose faith in the energy officials of the Biden administration. So far they’ve been great friends to our oil and gas industry, granting more drilling leases than the Trump administration. And in the Ukraine crisis they’ve mainly toed the line of the fossil fuel industry, which is that we should ship natural gas to Europe as a replacement for Russian gas. Cheniere Energy, the big gas exporter, which has deep ties to Democratic party elites, is emerging as one of the winners in the crisis. “The human toll and tragedy obviously has our thoughts and prayers,” one oleaginous executive explained, but as Kate Aronoff pointed out in the New Republic the company has “found a profitable silver lining in the suffering.” Indeed, Germany just announced plans for big new LNG terminals in line with this strategy. But those won’t be built fast enough to make a difference next winter; the latest science shows relying on gas for heating is a climate disaster (just last week data emerged showing the industry was undercounting its methane emissions by 70%); and anyway anything that deepens dependence on oil and gas means that Russia’s hydrocarbon industry remains an economic asset. Since fossil fuel is a global industry with global pricing power, it’s only when we switch to ever-cleaner electricity that we really undercut Putin’s power.

Business won’t do this on its own. In World War II, the Chamber of Commerce (on the wrong side of virtually every important question for a century) opposed Lend-Lease; Henry Ford, the dominant industrialist of the day, was an America Firster (and anti-Semite). But FDR didn’t let that slow him down. Mark Wilson, a historian at the University of North Carolina who wrote the definitive account of industry in World War II, explained to me how how the federal government birthed a welter of new agencies with names like the War Production Board and the Defense Plant Corporation; the latter, between 1940 and 1945, spent $9 billion on 2,300 projects in 46 states, building factories it then leased to private industry. By war’s end, the government had a dominant position in everything from aircraft manufacturing to synthetic rubber production. The stories were incredible: a tank factory in Michigan went up so quickly that they didn’t have a power supply to run it, so they simply moved a steam locomotive into one end of the building and used it to power operations. That one facility turned out more tanks than all of Germany in the course of the war. As I wrote some years ago

Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns; Oldsmobile churned out cannons; Studebaker built engines for Flying Fortresses; Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers for British de Havillands; Hudson Motors fabricated wings for Helldivers and P-38 fighters; Buick manufactured tank destroyers; Fisher Body built thousands of M4 Sherman tanks; Cadillac turned out more than 10,000 light tanks. And that was just Detroit—the same sort of industrial mobilization took place all across America.

Heat pumps aren’t the only commodity we might produce this time around. Europe is also apparently short of insulation, and America has spare productive capacity—load ships full of the pink stuff, and let Britons pack their attics so that when November rolls around next year (and November will roll around) the old boiler in the basement won’t have to work so hard while it waits to be replaced by a modern heat pump.

Here’s how Ari Matusiak, the CEO of the non-profit Rewiring America, describes our opportunity—I’m going to quote him at length, because I think he’s got it right:

It's time we enlarge our understanding of the principle of collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty. That article calls on the member countries to take the action they deem necessary "to restore and maintain the security of the North America area." If the President combines that view of collective defense with the invocation of the Defense Production Act, we can start manufacturing the heat pumps that will electrify the 75 million homes in Europe and the UK dependent on Russian gas for their heat. Every home electrified with an American flag-stamped heat pump will provide European leaders with more political ballast because they will be alleviating economic pain for their people. It will also enable us to create a new industry — resulting in hundreds of thousands of jobs subsidized with European investment — that will spur the transformation of our own economy. This vigorous, proud and confident reclaiming of our trans-Atlantic alliance gives us a real shot at winning the climate fight once and for all. What's not to like?

We’ve got to do all that we can do—this is as dark a moment as we’ve faced in many ways, with the specter of nuclear conflict and the climate crisis mixing in truly horrifying fashion. One more of the dramatic moments that seem to mark this week came at the final meeting of global climate scientists preparing their next report which will be released within hours, the Ukrainian delegate said: “Human induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots, fossil fuels, and our dependence on them.” At which point—and with unbelievable courage—the Russian delegate responded, “Let me present an apology on behalf of all Russians who were not able to prevent this conflict.” We don’t have to be as brave as he was (and I shudder to think what’s going to happen to him). But we do have to go to work now, right now. Not next year, not after the midterms. Now.

We can do this. Biden could make good on some of his energy promises and some of his manufacturing promises; we could peacefully punch Putin in the kidneys, doing him severe damage without raising the odds of nuclear war; and we could even start to head off the instability and war that will invariably accompany the climate crisis. Heat pumps for peace and freedom!

[Top photo: This Machine Fights Fascism (an air source heat pump being installed last September in a house built in the 1930s in Folkestone, UK).]