Ari Armstrong, Energy, Exclusives, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Baby, it was cold outside

Do you know the temperature inside a tauntaun? It’s luke-warm. You can blame Governor Polis for that one.

If Weather-dot-com is to be believed, it’ll be back in the 50s when you read this. It sure got cold before Christmas, with Denver temperatures dropping to 24 below, the coldest in three decades.

On Thursday I broke out my Grand Junction-made Wiggy’s arctic jacket to shovel snow. Despite the deepfreeze I overheated within about half an hour of shoveling and had to strip down to my wool sweater. My fingers got too cold though; I’ll have to invest in some better gloves.

I was grateful for the natural gas burning in the furnace to raise the indoor temperature of my house some eighty degrees above that outside. Although we didn’t get nearly as much snow as during the big storm of ’03, when the snow filled the space between parked cars and I traipsed around in waste-deep powder, this storm seemed more daunting due to the extreme temperatures. It was that deep cold that makes the snow scrunch like styrofoam when you walk on it.

My gas-burner is ancient, though, so I figure I’ll have to replace it one of these years. Consumers now have a choice: Go with gas—I could get a much more efficient model than I now run—or get an electric heat pump.

What’s a heat pump, you ask? It’s basically the same technology your refrigerator uses. By compressing and expanding a fluid, your refrigerator dumps heat outside the box (into your house) and cools the inside. If you reversed the process, you could heat the inside of the box and cool the outside. In this way a heat pump can heat your house in winter and cool it in summer. Because the heat pump is just moving heat around, in principle it’s pretty efficient.

But can you really, practically, heat your house using a heat pump when it’s below zero outside? Absolute zero is 460 below (using Daniel Fahrenheit’s scale), so theoretically a heat pump can work at very cold temperatures. Can an economically priced, consumer-grade model function on Colorado’s coldest nights without a gas or electric (or wood) backup system?

Lucky for me, Colorado Public Radio’s environmental reporter Sam Brasch put his system to the test. Prior to the Big Freeze, I asked him about this on Twitter. He said, “My model is a cold-climate heat pump manufactured by Mitsubishi. It’s rated to work down to negative 24 F, but this will no doubt be a massive test for the whole system. I have no gas or electrical-resistance backup system.” His system kept ahead of the cold nicely.

Incidentally, I’ve also seen a ground-source heat pump system, which is even more efficient because the ground (beneath a certain depth) stays at a moderate temperature. Even if it’s twenty below outside, underground will stay a relatively toasty fifty or sixty. But drilling the deep holes required for the system is expensive, so I think if I go with a heat pump it’ll be an open-air one.

Putting in a heat pump might not be a simple swap-out, though. Will the ductwork installed for a gas system work with a pump? If you have to install new ductwork in your house that could add a large upfront expense.

An obvious question is where the electricity comes from. Most electricity in Colorado is generated by…burning natural gas. And then there’s the grid capacity. If everyone suddenly converted from gas to electric we might have a problem. The Gazette opines, “Colorado’s energy infrastructure, like much of the country’s, just doesn’t have the carrying capacity to generate and deliver that much megawattage.”

The Gazette blasts a Denver proposal to “mandate that future homes in the city be all electric.” I agree that’s the wrong strategy. If heat pumps really are so great, government doesn’t need to force people to use them. Even if you think government should intervene to solve problems of “external” harms, subsidies for pumps or extra taxes on gas furnaces would be a softer approach.

But no one is suggesting (I hope!) that existing users of gas furnaces be forced to replace them with electric systems. So to a large extent the Gazette’s worries are misplaced; the transition to electric systems would be slow.

Still, it’s worth remembering where we are in terms of how we generate electricity and home heat. I believe we will get to a future of mostly nuclear or solar-generated electricity, but that will take a while. If we’re going to shift to not only electric home heating but electric cars, that will require a comprehensive overhaul of how we generate and transmit electricity.

Your individual choice won’t make any substantial difference to the system as a whole. I’m going to seriously look at getting a heat pump for my place. If I had room I’d add a pellet or wood stove for backup. Then I’d be immune both to electrical outages—as some people in Lafayette and Erie suffered during the cold snap—and to gas line breaks.

If you enjoy a fireplace, fine. On the whole, though, it’s wonderful that we no longer have to burn smoky coal or wood to stay warm. Natural gas furnaces mark an impressive advance, and the new heat pumps are amazing technologies. We should try not to take staying warm for granted.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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