Ron Domitrovic is Program Manager at the Electric Power Research Institute.
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
Electric Power Research Institute Program Manager Ron Domitrovic explains why the next-generation heat pump can make electric heating and cooling much more efficient.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: Tell me what you do here at EPRI.
Ron Domitrovic: I manage the end-use energy efficiency and demand response group. My technical area includes heating and air conditioning.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: The American Community Survey for 2016 shows that electricity is now heating 38 percent of American homes. Are you saying that we've got some technologies coming down the road that will encourage electric heating?
Ron Domitrovic: Yes. Traditionally, heating has been fossil fuel, gas or bulk fuel, or in some cases, electric resistance.
In pockets in the South, heat pumps were used. Traditionally, heat pumps functioned somewhat like air conditioners turned in reverse. They couldn't necessarily serve the entire load and they weren't appropriate for colder latitudes.
Ten or so years ago, variable speed and variable capacity air conditioning heat pumps were introduced. They enabled heat pumps to deliver a lot more heating capacity than they used to.
These heat pumps can be used in Ohio or in Pennsylvania or the Pacific Northwest, because they have the heating capacity to provide what used to be served by some other source.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: The breakthrough was variable speed?
Ron Domitrovic: Yes, the foundational breakthrough is the variable speed compressor.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: Is the modern heat pump as comfortable or efficient as these other forms of heating?
Ron Domitrovic: There are so many engineering choices that must be made when you design a system but in general, yes. A heat pump can be made much more efficient than other heating sources. It can be made to provide equal comfort.
Can you tweak a gas furnace to be a little different and a little more comfortable too? Certainly; but the heat pumps now are very competitive, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, they weren't.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: What's the potential - and the potential impact?
Ron Domitrovic: It depends a lot on policy. It depends on cost, capital cost of equipment, and contractors' familiarity with installation.
In 20 years, the technology could allow for the entirety of the U.S., with the exception of Alaska, to be heated with electricity.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: What kind of policies could stimulate this progress, or delay it?
Ron Domitrovic: If there were policies limiting greenhouse gases or affecting which technologies can be deployed relative to greenhouse gases, that would certainly affect it one way or another.
PUF's Steve Mitnick: What's your role in all this?
Ron Domitrovic: Over the past couple of years, I've managed the Next Generation Heat Pump project.
During this time, EPRI developed the Next Generation Heat Pump Specification to define what makes a unit "next generation." The specification defines the heating and cooling capacity and includes the requirement that the unit be able to perform demand response; something the manufacturers needed guidance for.
We helped the manufacturers understand demand response and how their air conditioners, their heat pumps, can be resources for that through a utility program.