Finding ways to heat your home that make sense
Keeping warm and cozy
With winter descending on Norway, rising energy bills worry many. As the snow starts to fall, can people afford to stay warm? Hygge, the feeling of coziness and comfort, should characterize winter holidays yet seems distant.
There are no easy solutions. Burning wood in a fireplace or stove degrades air quality. Igniting other materials, such as coal, peat, or vegetation, also pollutes. Breathing in the small particles exacerbates ailments such as asthma and increases short-term deaths, especially in older people. Yet burning wood is reported as Norway’s second most common heating source after hydropower-generated electricity.
Dams are often marketed as renewable and environmentally friendly. From China to Brazil, millions of people have been forced out of their homes so that their towns could be flooded for dams. Finland’s dam construction after World War II inundated many Sámi villages in the country’s north and undermined fishing livelihoods.
Norway’s flashpoint was in Alta, with hunger strikes and blockades in the 1970s and 1980s. Dam construction went ahead there, and the losing battle heavily influenced Arne Næss’ Deep Ecology movement. Other demonstrations opposed the construction of the Mardøla and Orkla-Grana dams.
New large dams in Norway today are unlikely. Buying electricity from other countries leaves Norwegians at the whim of price, currency, and supply fluctuations. Since people must stay warm, other approaches are being researched and tested by Norwegian scientists.
A heat pump, about the size of a typical kitchen oven and looking like an odd air-conditioning unit, can sit outside a building. It uses a small amount of electricity or other fuel such as natural gas to draw in heat from outside air, water, or ground. This outside heat is transferred inside or to heat water, becoming much warmer than the outside temperature. Then, on hot days, rather than the extensive energy gobbled up by air conditioners, heat pumps can remove excess heat from inside, cooling a building.
The heating or cooling provided far exceeds the input of electricity or fuel. Even with materials and maintenance, heat pumps are touted as a cheaper and cleaner way for heating and cooling than water or wood.Many standard heat pumps do not perform well below or above specific air temperatures. The lower bound is sometimes reported as around 5° Fahrenheit, a temperature regularly reached throughout Norway. The coldest days, when heat is needed most, require alternatives.
Options are expanding. Technological advances permit heat pumps to operate at wider temperature ranges, avoiding problems on the coldest or hottest days.
SINTEF, an independent research institute headquartered in Trondheim, has been investigating heat pumps for over six decades. Recognizing that heating and cooling homes leaves out industrial processes, in 2021 they and their collaborators produced a heat pump that can provide air temperatures up to 356° Fahrenheit.
They have also been working on industrial-scale heat pumps. Should every home or apartment building have its own system? Or should buildings on the same system have a more centralized, large-scale heat pump supplying everyone? How big could heat pumps become?
Should we perpetuate the centralization of energy supplies by comparing a single heat pump with a large dam and a nuclear power plant? Or should we pursue the pathway of Small is Beautiful, the 1973 book by E. F. Schumacher, so that we use local heat pumps to their full advantage? If a household’s heat pump breaks, the people can stay warm or cool with neighbors while awaiting repairs. If a town’s single heat pump goes out of action, everyone is in trouble.
More analysis is needed to understand the complete life cycle of heat pumps. How much materials and fuel are required for widespread use? What are the maintenance requirements and lifetimes? How are heat pumps decommissioned, with the materials reused (or recycled)?
Decisions based on these questions and answers are not just about muddling through the coming cold season. They are about dealing with the locked-in consequences on weather from human-caused climate change during an era when many energy sources are or could become conflict zones.
This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.