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Green Building Blog

Are Heat Pumps Green?

IT MAY BE FREE HEAT, BUT IT USES ELECTRICITY TO OPERATE. A ground-source heat pump uses vapor compression to extract heat from a closed, underground loop of water. Inside the heat pump, refrigerant is the heat-exchange medium. During summer, the direction of the refrigerant is reversed, allowing the pump to extract heat from the air inside a house.
Image Credit: Paul Perrault/Fine Homebuilding 133

Not If the Electricity that Powers the Pump is Generated by Burning Coal

An article in the Home and Garden section of the New York Times titled “Time to Worry About Heat Bills,” by Jay Romano, talks about a winter heating option that will save you money: electric heat pumps. With the price of gas and oil skyrocketing, the article reasons, an electric heat pump will be a money saver this winter and eventually will end up “paying for itself.”

But is it green?
Not if you’re getting your electricity from the grid.

  • Coal plants have an efficiency of about 31%; put another way, almost 70% of the energy contained in a lump of coal is lost as heat when it’s burned at a coal plant.
  • And along with that heat, tons of carbon dioxide are dumped into the atmosphere when the lump of coal is burned.
  • And strip mining for lumps of coal leaves a mighty big footprint on the land.

I sure wish I could convince Henry Gifford to let me publish his manuscript on why heat pumps are not such a great idea.

—Dan Morrison is managing editor of


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