The Intertubes are buzzing with news that the town of Esbjerg in Denmark is installing a massive heat pump system that will instantly decarbonize its citywide heating district, all in one blow. Heat pumps are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish here in the US, where supply chain issues loom. Fortunately the Biden administration has a plan for that.
The Amazing Giant Heat Pump Of Esbjerg
The Esbjerg heat pump project is the creation of the German engineering firm MAN Energy Solutions, which is installing the 60-megawatt setup for the local utility DIN Forsyning.
The heart of the system consists of a pair of supersized heat pumps, which are big enough to replace the town’s existing coal power plant and its waste-to-energy incinerator, to boot.
MAN provides a rundown of the operation on its website by the independent journalist Niels Anner, who reviewed the equipment on site at Esbjerg Harbor. As described by Anner, the new system showcases a first-of-its-kind scale-up for the technology.
“With a heating capacity of 60 megawatts, the system is the world’s largest heatpump to use supercricital carbon dioxide (i.e., CO2 pressurized and heated above its critical point). And it is the first of its kind to provide thermal energy — that is, the transfer of heat — on a major industrial scale,” Anner writes.
If you caught that thing about supercritical CO2, that refers to a liquid form of carbon dioxide. The US Department of Energy has been exploring the use of supercritical CO2 to shrink the size — and therefore the cost — of turbines in a power station. Energy storage technology based on supercritical CO2 has also been emerging.
Local Energy Resources Go To Work For A Giant Heat Pump
Under the old fossil fuel scenario, municipal power plants had to ship in coal, oil, or gas from faraway places. The renewable energy transition has opened up new options that are more reliable and secure, while reducing, if not eliminating, the cost of fuel transportation.
The Esbjerg project is a case in point. The system, which is on track for completion this fall, will deploy water from the adjacent Wadden Sea to heat every building in the city. As with air-sourced systems, the Esbjerg heat pump extracts thermal energy from the water. The big difference is the supercritical CO2. which vaporizes when exposed to heat.
Electricity to run the compressors and other equipment is provided by a local wind farm. As Anner notes, the system includes an energy storage feature to fill the gaps in wind availability. Conversely, it can also coordinate its electricity consumption with the grid, enabling the integration of more wind and solar power overall.
Heat Pumps & Virtual Power Plants
Small-scale heat pumps for individual buildings have been around for years. They can operate in reverse, to cool down buildings in warm weather as well as heat them in cold weather.
Previous iterations were relatively expensive and inefficient, but recent improvements have made heat pumps a more attractive alternative to fossil-fueled HVAC systems in more buildings over a wider range of climates, including cold climates. Along with favorable public policies, the technology improvements have set off a wave of consumer interest.
Now that heat pumps for individual buildings are more common, they are also being recruited into the “virtual power plant” model, in which smart grid systems coordinate the electricity demand of individual ratepayers. Virtual power plants help reduce demand during peak periods, which can eliminate the need to build new fossil-fueled “peaker” plants.
As with the Esbjerg project, virtual power plants act as grid stabilizers for more wind and solar energy, so getting more heat pumps into individual buildings can have a powerful ripple effect on the pace of decarbonization.
What’s All This About A Supply Chain Bottleneck?
Against this backdrop, McKinsey & Company is out with a new report on the prospects for rapid decarbonization in the built environment, meaning all types of construction as well as buildings.
The soup-to-nuts report pulls 30 of the most effective strategies from a pool of 1,000 options, with “effective” including their state of play in terms of commercial development. As described by McKinsey in an email, many of the top 30 solutions are “either already cost effective relative to conventional practices or are expected to be at or close to cost parity by 2030 if industrialized.”
In play are green building materials, energy efficiency and electrification upgrades, design strategies that purpose-build for energy efficiency and other green technologies, the electrification of construction equipment, waste minimization, and off-site construction.
If all goes according to plan, McKinsey anticipates that construction stakeholders can deploy existing technologies to cut emissions by more than 50% by 2030.
The takeaway is that the construction industry does not have to wait for new technologies to take shape in order to get in gear for rapid decarbonization. However, there is a caveat, and it’s a big one.
“To capture economic benefits, industry players will likely need to act decisively to increase production of technologies and materials, build service companies, unlock supply chains, and develop the necessary operational skills across the value chain to implement solutions at scale,” McKinsey warns.
Heat Pumps To The Rescue, If All Goes According To Plan
The McKinsey report highlights the crucial role that heat pumps could play in rapid decarbonization. “For example, approximately 60% of built environment operational emissions come from space cooling, space heating, and water heating. Heat pumps could abate up to 60% of heating and cooling emissions for most building types,” McKinsey explains.
That’s the good news. “However, the heat pump supply chain currently is experiencing manufacturing and supply chain bottlenecks that providers would have to solve,” the firm warns.
As described by McKinsey, breaking open the bottleneck requires both private sector action and supportive public policy. “There is an opportunity to scale the production of heat pumps and related components by industrializing manufacturing, strengthening supply chains, and implementing operational excellence best practices,” McKinsey explains.
On the policy side, McKinsey provides a ringing endorsement for carbon credits. “Verified credentials will likely create a stable demand scenario that could empower investors and entrepreneurs to scale these solutions confidently,” they enthuse.
Follow The Money
The McKinsey report also advocates for stepping up the green leg of ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing. “Financing the transition will require new approaches such as offering energy-as-service financing, scaling offerings of green insurance underwriting and offering investments to transition brown-to-green real estate and infrastructure,” McKinsey suggests.
The Biden administration is not waiting around for private sector investors to step up. They are already on case. Last August, President Biden invoked the World War II-era Defense Production Act to help accelerate the pace of domestic clean tech production. The US Department of Energy followed up in April, announcing that the first of five DPA-authorized clean tech funding tranches will go to heat pumps, to the tune of $250 million.
Funded through the Inflation Reduction Act, the heat pump initiative provides support for building new commercial heat pump manufacturing plants, and for expanding existing facilities.
The new heat pump initiative also supports the transition of commercial-scale manufacturing facilities that produce other HVAC systems, to become part of the heat pump supply chain. That includes the manufacture of materials and components as well as entire heat pump systems.
The Energy Department is not letting any grass grow under its feet. If you didn’t already submit a concept paper, you’re too late. Concept papers due on May 19 as a required first step for the August 1 deadline to submit a full application.
Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post: @tinamcasey
Photo: Giant heat pumps will provide zero emission district heating for the entire city of Esbjerg in Demark (photo courtesy of MAN).
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