Heat pump water heaters weren’t always considered an energy-saving darling. Rewind the clock to the 1980s when Northwest companies experimented with heat pump technologies; many of the early units were fraught with reliability and customer service issues. Some units performed so poorly that they were pulled from the market.
So BPA and Northwest public utilities took a wait-and-see approach on the technology until big name brands began releasing units in the late 2000s. “The arrival of major manufacturers in the market prompted us to give the new generation of heat pump water heaters a serious look,” said Sarah F. Moore, BPA residential sector lead.
So how do you find out if a technology is viable in the Pacific Northwest? You test it.
In 2009, BPA’s Technology Innovation Office, which funds research that promises significant energy savings to the Northwest, added heat pump water heaters to its research portfolio. Years earlier, BPA’s research and development group implemented a pioneering approach in the region’s study of ductless heat pumps. The model leverages technical studies into tentative proof of savings that’s then scaled up to regional implementation.
“It really boils down to collaborating with other utilities and industry groups so research efforts aren’t duplicated and the right investments are being made,” said Terry Oliver, BPA’s chief technology innovation officer.
BPA is now working with the Electric Power Research Institute, Duke Energy, Southern California Edison, the Tennessee Valley Authority and others to make its research model a standard practice for utilities studying the implementation of new and advancing technologies.
A heat pump water heater uses electricity to move heat instead of generating it, which makes it two to three times more efficient than a conventional electric water heater.
Pilot participant Aisha Soria said her family could never go back to her electric water heater. “We’ve never run out of hot water, we love the savings and it’s really sleek looking too.”
Pilot earns praise
In February, EPRI recognized the Northwest Heat Pump Water Heater Pilot Project with a Power Delivery & Utilization Technology Transfer Award for its leadership and significant contributions to promoting the technology. Ammi Amarnath, senior program manager from the Electric Power Research Institute, says lessons from this project can influence the market and bring future benefits to consumers.
“By establishing connections between utility members and manufacturers we can expect to see new products that are even more in line with the interests and needs of utilities and their residential customers.”
Your water heater is a battery
Beyond cutting utility bills and reducing region-wide energy demand, heat pump waters may also be a future resource for the Northwest power grid. BPA and Northwest utilities are currently testing different types of demand response and energy storage technologies, including water heaters, as a potential solution to help integrate wind power to the transmission grid and manage peak load (times of high energy usage). Peak load occurs not only seasonally, in high heating or air-conditioning seasons, but on a daily cycle, such as in the morning and evening.
One of the new BPA-funded pilot projects will test whether heat pump water heaters, which are more efficient than conventional water heaters, can effectively store energy.
“We believe water heaters could be part of a portfolio of cost-effective resources that could provide energy storage. Water heaters are an especially good solution because there is little impact on the consumer,” notes Lee Hall, BPA’s smart grid program manager.
“We also understand the importance of saving energy, so we are testing how energy efficiency and storage can work together.”
Utilities look at the payback over the life of a product. A heat pump water heater will save the average home about $300 a year compared to a standard electric unit, which pencils out to about $3,000 of savings over the typical 10-year lifetime of a standard water heater.
Long-term savings aside, heat pump water heaters are more expensive to purchase than electric units. An 80-gallon heat pump water heater costs between $1,000 and $2,000, compared to about $600 to $900 for an efficient electric model. So BPA and Northwest public utilities are offering an economic incentive to make the energy-saving switch even more appealing.