Keep cool, California: Heat pumps are a good way to go

A building with window air conditioners, which are not as efficient as heat pumps. (Photo: David Crockett, via Shutterstock)

California’s heat exposure is deadly — and growing more dangerous as temperatures rise with climate change. A groundbreaking report to the California Legislature earlier this year found that by midcentury, the death toll from heat exposure in California could reach the current death rate from automobile accidents.

In the face of rising temperatures, California is uniquely unprepared.

Unlike states like Texas and Florida, where only 1% of homes lack A.C., roughly a quarter of California homes are not equipped with central cooling. Studies show that the access to cooling in homes is highly correlated with heat-related mortality – and low-income households are less likely to have the cooling they need to stay safe.

Adding millions of inefficient window air conditioning units would only drive up the climate pollution. That’s where heat pumps comes in.

Renters, especially, are vulnerable; while landlords are legally required to provide tenants with heating regardless of climate zone, there is no corresponding requirement for cooling.

To keep communities safe, California needs to ensure that all homes are equipped with cooling — and fast. But adding millions of inefficient window air conditioning units would only drive up the climate pollution that’s fueling the climate crisis. That’s where a technology called a heat pump comes in.

Electric heat pumps, which provide cooling in summer and heating in winter, are the key to protecting households without warming the planet. In addition to providing cooling that is 50% more efficient than window A.C. units, they also unlock a future without fossil fuels in homes by eliminating the need for gas furnaces. Heat pumps are a win for resilience and a win for the climate.

In a major step this month to expanding access to heat pumps, Gov. Newsom laid out the nation’s most ambitious targets for climate-friendly housing: 3 million climate-friendly homes by 2030 and 7 million climate-friendly homes by 2035, supplemented by the deployment of 6 million heat pumps by 2030. These targets mean that in just over a decade, half of all California homes could be equipped with heat pumps.

Adding millions of inefficient window air conditioning units would only drive up the climate pollution.  That’s where heat pumps come in.

Now that California has these ambitious targets in place, it’s time for funding — and this year’s historic surplus should serve as a down payment on what’s needed. Lawmakers have critical opportunities to deliver on these goals.

California leaders should move forward with a budget proposal from Gov. Newsom to invest almost $1 billion in upgrading and decarbonizing the homes of low-income Californians with heat pumps, along with other upgrades like weatherization. This investment will boost resilience in the face of extreme heat, cut climate emissions, and lower energy bills.

State lawmakers should invest $500 million in the TECH Clean California program to deploy hundreds of thousands of heat pumps to California households, of which 50% would be targeted to households in low-income and environmental justice communities. The program, which was created last year by Gov. Newsom and the California legislature, has been so successful that it is on the brink of running out of funds, and will soon be forced to shutter without additional funding.

Additionally, the state should invest $1 billion to upgrade trusted community buildings – such as libraries and community centers – to act as resilience centers, and $500 million to upgrade schools.

Equipping community buildings with clean energy appliances like heat pumps can boost community resilience by expanding access to cooling, backup power, clean air, and ongoing community services and programs.

And by cooling classrooms, we can help protect children from extreme heat and the associated health risks and academic disadvantages.

This summer has been blistering, and in all likelihood, next summer will be even hotter. State lawmakers should act now to invest in a healthier and more climate-resilient future for all Californians.

Editor’s Note: Jose Torres is the California Director at the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

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