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How hot are heat pumps, really?

Heat pumps are growing in popularity, but more needs to be done to meet Canada’s 2030 climate goals

Heat pumps are all the rage in Canada these days. With almost daily news stories about how households are making the switch, and new government money to incentivize them to do so, it’s no surprise that Canadians are increasingly curious about heat pumps (Figure 1).

Rising interest in heat pumps is good news for Canadians and the climate. Heat pumps run on electricity, rather than fossil fuels, making them an important solution to reduce stubborn emissions from buildings. They are also highly energy efficient—as much as two to five times more efficient than gas furnaces–because they transfer heat rather than creating it. This means that heat pumps deliver substantial savings on energy bills, helping to make them the most cost-effective option for most households. And, by providing both heating and cooling, heat pumps can help households manage heat waves—especially in provinces like British Columbia, where residents are facing hotter summers but often lack air conditioning to weather them. For all these reasons, and more, it’s no surprise that Canadians who’ve made the switch to heat pumps are happy they did

But is this growing interest translating into more heat pumps being installed in Canadian homes? In short: yes, but not nearly fast enough. 

Adoption is heating up across Canada, especially in the Maritimes

In the last decade, a growing number of households have made the switch to heat pumps. According to Statistics Canada’s Households and the Environment Survey, the share of heat pumps installed as primary home heating systems in Canada has doubled between 2013 and 2021—from three to six per cent (Figure 2). Another Statistics Canada survey found that in 2023, seven per cent of all Canadians households reported using a heat pump. 

While the Government of Canada does not report heat pump sales data—as they do on a quarterly basis for electric vehicles—calculations using industry data shows that in 2022, Canadians bought 36,000 new ducted heat pumps, up 18 per cent from 2018 levels. And, anecdotal evidence from companies suggests that heat pump sales continued to accelerate in 2023. 

Heat pump adoption has risen much faster in some regions than others. This is especially true in the Maritimes, where heat pumps are already the primary heating technology in more than 20 per cent of households, thanks in large part to strong government policies. Leading the pack is New Brunswick, where heat pumps represented 32 per cent of primary home heating systems in the province in 2021, with adoption more than tripling since 2013. 

Uptake is lagging what’s needed to meet Canada’s 2030 target

Although the number of heat pumps in Canadian homes has risen steadily year-over-year, the share of total home heating load provided by heat pumps has increased more slowly. According to our calculations using the National Energy Use Database, between 2013 and 2020, the share of total home heating load provided by heat pumps rose at an annual rate of 1.6 per cent (Figure 3). 

While the share of primary heating systems is an important indicator of technology deployment, the share of total home heating load provides a more comprehensive look at the shift away from fossil fuels to heat pumps in home heating. In addition to using different data sources and methodologies, the slower increase in home heating load compared to primary heating technology is also not surprising, given that heat pumps are much more efficient than other heating technologies and therefore draw less of a load.

Regardless, for the residential sector to align with Canada’s climate targets, our calculations show that the share of heating load provided by heat pumps must accelerate, almost doubling this decade and growing at an annual rate of six per cent. That would mean that by 2030, heat pumps provide more than 10 percent of home heating load in Canada. 

More work ahead

As emissions from the building sector continue to rise, heat pumps offer a promising solution to reduce emissions while also enhancing affordability and resilience for Canadian households. Yet despite signs of progress, it’s clear that more action must be taken.

The policies laid out in the Emissions Reduction Plan, alongside action from other orders of government, can accelerate heat pump adoption and bring the sector in line with Canada’s goals. However, these policies require quick and effective implementation. At the federal level, for instance, we are still waiting on implementation details for the Green Building Strategy, which promises to deliver net zero emissions for the building sector by 2050. 

In addition, while policies have been introduced at all orders of government to accelerate heat pump adoption, in practice, consumers still face a number of barriers to making the switch. These include lack of awareness about heat pumps, labour shortages, complex government programming, and high upfront costs. Governments can address these barriers by streamlining government programming (ideally in ways that reduce up-front costs), maintaining existing policies and rebates, implementing planned initiatives, and improving equitable access for lower-income Canadians and renters. 

Finally, the patchwork of government and industry data makes it difficult to track progress on heat pump deployment—a leading indicator of building sector decarbonization. The federal government should collect and publish more timely and relevant heat pump data so that policy makers and organizations like 440 Megatonnes can better assess progress and identify opportunities to course correct. 

Anna Kanduth is the Director of 440 Megatonnes at the Canadian Climate Institute.