Air conditioning is a hot topic this summer.
As temperatures reach record highs in the USA and abroadcities have moved to increase access to cooling centers while electrical networks are subject to constraints air conditioning requests. In some places, the need for air conditioning has probably never been greater, but emissions from these systems and pollution from refrigerants are major contributors to global warming that exacerbates heat waves in the first place.
It was this vision of a warming future – and the reality that climate goals cannot be met without reducing emissions from buildings – that drove heat pump company Gradient to go into business in 2017. , according to co-founder and CEO Vince Romanin. Heat pumps are energy efficient units that use electricity to transfer heat and can act as a heating or cooling system depending on the season.
Gradient sells to both consumers and businesses, and the San Francisco startup just got a seven-year contract to manufacture 10,000 units for use in New York City public housing. He won the contract through the New York City Housing Authority, New York Power Authority and New York State Energy Research and Development’s. Clean Heat for All Challenge — a heating and cooling industry competition to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by developing electric heating sources that meet the needs of existing multi-family buildings.
In an interview with Smart Cities Dive, Romanin explained how public awareness and demand for building electrification has become paramount.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
SMART CITIES DIVE: How has this market evolved since the creation of Gradient?
Vince Romanin: If there is one most important thing that has changed, it is that people know what heat pumps are.
Consumers are more interested in supporting companies that have a mission, who do something more positive. And investors are focusing on clean tech – they’re focusing on companies that are also better for the world. I think people realize…we need healthy, thriving communities or we can’t have healthy, thriving businesses.
And that’s really brought the climate conversation to the fore, which has turned into a conversation about how we electrify our buildings, which has gotten people to understand what heat pumps are and to talk about it. So we went from having to explain to people why we were doing HVAC, what a heat pump actually is and why it’s important for the climate, to people looking for heat pumps.
What factors do you attribute most to this awareness of the heat pump?
I think it was definitely a bit of everything.
We started the business saying that if we want [put billions] more air conditioners on the planet, we must ensure that these air conditioners are also heat pumps. You can kind of kill two birds with one stone, for lack of a better word, if you give someone an air conditioner but also remove their furnace at the same time.
- The heat wave in the Pacific Northwest made many people who didn’t have an air conditioner want to buy one. They then became interested in heat pumps.
- NYCHA, after Hurricane Ida destroyed much of its infrastructure, said, “If we want to upgrade our heating system, we might as well give people access to cooling at the same time.”
- Europe, which experienced a heat wave a few years ago that killed [thousands of] people in France, was a wake-up call that their infrastructure needed to be updated and at the same time reduce carbon emissions. And so the solution is to deploy air conditioners which are also heat pumps.
- And then finally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led Europe to push to get out of natural gas and the solution to getting buildings out of gas is heat pumps.
So I think it’s people who are seeing the very real effects of climate change, things like heat waves and hurricanes, and I think that’s increased action on climate change.
What impact do decarbonization policies for municipal or state buildings have? – whether it’s “gas bans”, building performance standards or code changes – had on the development and deployment of these products?
As a company we always say [we need to build a business that can be successful] regardless of government regulations. But at the same time, we also want to work with governments because [they can] make sure it happens fairly. It’s really important to us and it’s really important to any solution to climate change. If you don’t do it fairly, you get people who aren’t affected by heat waves [with] really fancy air conditioners and people affected by heat waves are left with the same crumbling infrastructure. We will indirectly lose the fight against climate change because the people we are trying to protect will be harmed.
And that’s exactly why we really applaud what NYCHA, NYSERDA and NYPA have done because they’ve really written this program in a way that could help people…help infrastructure and help the climate at the same time.
the New York one Local Law 97, which is not directly a ban on natural gas but fines for buildings that do not decarbonise, has been a great help. And I’m certainly not an expert on the best way to do it: a carbon tax or a carbon fine like Local Law 97; versus a ban on natural gas in new constructions; against NYCHA/NYPA/NYSERDA doing this challenge for heat pumps; versus Defense Production Actwhat we have seen will manifest [in the Inflation Reduction Act].
All the different approaches of governments helping [support heat pumps] – they can all be useful in their own way. And we are happy to see governments working on this.
How are concerns about making this transition fair and affordable being addressed in New York? What could be done elsewhere?
Obviously the biggest example of how they are treated in New York is [through] this challenge … It’s not only [the government] buying this system for the buildings that are going to be most affected by climatic disasters is also the fact that they are literally pulling the market forward by launching this challenge.
The other element will be the energy bills… As you switch to the electrification of heating, it will be very important to determine how the costs are not too burdensome for the consumer.
All in all, the true cost of HVAC isn’t just the hardware itself… It’s incredibly difficult to predict or have the tools to say, “if I buy a more efficient and more reliable system, it will pay for itself in three years”, five years or whatever. So I think there needs to be solutions, either in the form of government incentives or in the form of HVAC as a service offerings, comfort as a service from companies like us, kind of like a solar lease made for residential solar. Help consumers make the right economic choice without having to pay for it.