‘Everything You Need to Know About the Wild World of Heat Pumps’

That’s the title of an article in a February 14th post from MIT https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/02/14/1068582/

I have written about and provided my own explanations regarding how heat pumps differ from forced air furnaces and traditional A/C systems, but the article cited above goes the extra mile.

If you’ve spent a night in a hotel or motel, you have probably slept in a room that was heated or cooled by a heat pump, because invariably that’s what those units are which you saw and controlled under each window.

In my other post today, heat pumps provide the heating and cooling for every Boxabl home. They are also what heats and cools many electric vehicles, since they require less battery power than conventional electric car heaters.

I was surprised to hear that heat pumps were invented in the 1850s but only started being used to heat and cool homes in the 1960s. It took the global climate crisis and the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to make them the hottest trend in new homes.

Speaking of new homes, however, I lamented as recently as last fall that I haven’t found a single new Denver area home builder which has abandoned gas-based home heating or even offers an upgrade to heat pumps. If you know of one, please tell me, because I’d be happy to promote that home builder in a future column.

The MIT article provides some useful information, including about the rebates being offered for heat pump installations. It also debunks the myth promoted by fossil fuel interests that heat pumps don’t work in colder climates. They are actually in use from Alaska to Maine, where, for example, my sister in Kingfield, Maine, installed a heat pump in her home to save on her fuel oil bill. Her fuel oil vendor told her that the adoption of heat pumps by her neighbors has noticeably reduced his sale of fuel oil in that rural community near the Canadian border.

According to the article, 60% of the homes in Norway are heated by heat pumps, as are 40% of the homes in Finland and Sweden (where another of my sisters lives).

“Wherever you look,” the MIT article concludes, “the era of the heat pump has officially begun.”

Toronto Rejects High-Tech ‘Smart City’ for Something More Livable on Its Waterfront  

The last place I’d expect to see a feature about Toronto rejecting a “smart city” proposal in favor of a green oasis would be MIT’s Technology Review, but there it is in the July/August 2022 issue of the magazine. It’s a fascinating study of how technology lost out to human scale sustainable development on prime real estate in Canada’s largest city.

The original 2017 proposal for the 12-acre plot between an expressway and Lake Ontario was for it “to become a hub for an optimized urban experience featuring robo-taxis, heated sidewalks, autonomous garbage collection, and an extensive digital layer to monitor everything from street crossings to park bench usage,” according to the article. The proposal, appropriately, came from a sister company of Google, Sidewalk Labs, which is the urban innovation arm of Alphabet. Click here to read the full article.

The idea was that this development would be a “proof of concept, establishing a new development model for cities everywhere. It could have demonstrated that the sensor-laden smart city model embraced in China and the Persian Gulf has a place in more democratic societies.”

After a 2½-year effort to sell the concept to Toronto’s citizenry, Sidewalk Labs abandoned the idea, blaming it on Covid-19, but citizen blowback was the reason.

Personally, I like the idea of a “smart city,” especially when it comes to traffic control. For example, I like traffic lights to respond to traffic and minimize wait times. But some of the “smart city” concepts, such as robo-taxis, sound more like the product of “geeks gone wild,” rather than a development to improve city life.

The rendering of Toronto’s replacement plan, adopted in February 2022, warms my heart. The plan is delightfully low tech, yet it incorporates a design that is “zero carbon,” or what we call “net zero energy.”

This quote says it all: “The real problem is that with their emphasis on the optimization of everything, smart cities seem designed to eradicate the very thing that makes cities wonderful.

Interestingly, Technology Review had cited the original Toronto proposal in its 2018 article about “10 breakthrough technologies,” writing that “Sidewalk Labs could reshape how we live, work, and play in urban neighborhoods.” The architectural critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail chimed in, praising the 2017 concept as an exciting approach to urban development.

Renderings such as the one above “show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an auton-omous vehicle or drone in sight. The project’s highly ac-complished design team… all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat.” The new project design, according to the article, is “a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.”

One of the city planners summed it up: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing…. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming.” 

A comment by one of the developers caught my attention. “In the U.S. it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. In Canada it’s peace, order, and good government. Canadians don’t expect the private sector to come in and save us from government, because we have high trust in government.”