Research Shows Huge Heat Pump Potential in China

CLASP and partners found great potential for heat pumps to scale across the country, supporting China's goal of net zero emissions by 2060.

Maggie Mowrer, Qianqian Cui

China committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2060, an ambitious goal that requires large-scale efficiency action. Because of the country’s status as both a major manufacturer and one of the biggest energy-consuming economies in the world, energy-efficient strategies for space and water heating appliances could eliminate millions of tons of CO₂ and help China deliver on its carbon reduction goals. Heat pumps are already “on the radar” for many policymakers, but there is huge potential yet to be realized.

China’s Heat Pump Paradox

CLASP joined with the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), Global Buildings Performance Network (GBPN), and Agora Energiewende to research the impacts of transitioning from fossil fuel heating to electric heat pumps in China. Electric heat pumps in China run on average at 350%–450% efficiency, producing 3.5–4.5 units of energy in heat per every unit they consume. As the middle class continues to increase, so does the demand for climate-controlled living spaces, and subsequently the emissions from coal and gas. Now is the time to ensure that this demand is paired with efficient technology that can match it.

Our research specifically sought to answer the question, “Why do heat pumps have such a limited market presence despite their proven benefits?” Although Chinese data has already shown that heat pump technology is highly efficient and reduces emissions, they comprise only 3% of the nationwide water heater market and 5% of the space heating market in 2021 (China Heat Pump Association 2022 Heat Pump Development Report).

In 2021, the country’s heat pump systems reduced CO₂ emissions by 81 million metric tons. RAP estimated that for every 1% increase in heat pump uptake in China’s buildings, an additional 7.1 Mt of CO₂ could be eliminated annually. Currently, only 3.4% of building area in China uses heat pumps for space heating, indicating a significant opportunity to scale deployment and decrease CO₂ nationally.

Technology Neutral, Heat-Pump Positive

To examine the potential barriers to widespread proliferation, the research group conducted a comparative analysis of heat pump standards in the EU and China. The results showed that if the current labeling system in China were improved, customers would more easily understand the efficiency benefits of heat pumps as compared to fossil fuel alternatives like furnaces. Using the EU as an example, China should move to a unified (technology neutral) standard for heating, which would highlight the drastic jump in efficiency provided by heat pumps.

An outdoor heat pump unit next to the Chinese energy label

Capturing the Chinese market is especially important because of the sheer amount of fossil fuel that would be eliminated from homes across the country. Heating accounts for around 68% of average household energy use in China. The majority of these heating systems are powered by methane and liquefied methane gas. The CO₂ reductions from converting to electric heat pump technology is staggering.

CO₂ emissions from domestic hot water in China could be reduced by 890 million metric tons during 2022-2030 with a total conversion to heat pump hot water heaters. (Mepsy)

CLASP strongly recommends that China prioritizes the development of technology neutral standards for heating appliance labels, allowing consumers to choose more energy-efficient options. We are assisting the China Energy Conservation Association to develop these policies and hope to finalize a proposal by the end of 2022.

Other Efficiency Work in China

In addition to promoting the uptake of heat pumps, CLASP is also working to improve the minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) of several other appliances in China, as well as hosting international workshops to facilitate policy adoption globally. In July, CLASP wrapped a year-long research effort to support China’s transition to 100% LED lighting in compliance with the Minamata Convention COP 4 requirements.

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