Heat Pumps and "Conservatives"
Al French as Climate Denier
Spokane County County Commissioner Al French is, arguably, the most powerful elected official in Spokane County (and among the best paid). He retains his power by mostly keeping a low profile, working behind the scenes while leaving only a few fingerprints in public controversies (like the firing of the County Health Officer, Dr. Bob Lutz, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic). Mr. French, an architect and developer, is an astute politician. He mostly stays out of the public eye while he exerts influence, “currently sit[ting] on 40 boards, commissions, councils from the local to regional and state levels” (quote taken from a 2022 Spokesman article whose link has since gone stale).
When Commissioner French does pop up in the news we should pay attention. So it was with the front page article in the Sunday Spokesman on August 7, “Heat pumps: Coming to a home near you? Washington building code proposal prompts debate as Inflation Reduction Act could spur their use”. Mention of French’s opposition to government nudging the building industry toward heat pumps was easy to miss, appearing half way through a very long article.
First, let’s get one thing straight. As a matter of pure physics a heat pump as a way of heating (or cooling) indoor space is wildly efficient. As a baseline, consider that baseboard electric heating is 100% efficient, that is, every packet of electrical energy delivered to the baseboard is converted to heat in the room it is meant to heat. A modern heat pump, by contrast, delivers between two to five times the heat energy in the home for every unit of electrical energy that powers it. That’s an “efficiency” of between 200 and 500 percent. By contrast, any other form of energy, natural gas, oil, propane, or wood, (once it is delivered to your home) will produce less heat in the home than the energy contained in the fuel delivered. For example, natural gas, even when burned in the most expensive and highest efficiency boilers and furnaces, still has to lose heat as exhaust from combustion, yielding a maximum efficiency of less than 100 percent, i.e. less energy as heat is delivered to the space than the energy contained in the fuel.
But wait! Doesn’t a named “efficiency” of two to four hundred percent for a heat pump violate the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that within a closed system energy is neither created or destroyed? Here’s the trick: the “closed system” of a heat pump includes the outdoor source of heat content (the air or the ground). The electricity used by a heat pump is not directly “burned” for its energy value. Instead the pump extracts already existing heat (or cold) from the air or ground and moves it into the room. (A refrigerator is a “heat pump” that works only in one direction, extracting heat from the inside of the refrigerator and moving that heat up-gradient into the kitchen.) The instantaneous efficiency of a heat pump depends on the temperature gradient between the source and the destination.
Consider this doubling to quintupling of the input electricity’s heating (or cooling) energy value that a heat pump offers. As an oversimplified thought experiment consider that if one could snap one’s fingers and instantly supply all the world’s heating and cooling needs with heat pump technology the world would use 50-80% less total energy to satisfy those heating and cooling needs than we currently satisfy mostly by burning fossil fuels that significantly contribute to global warming.
Eventual conversion to heat pump technology would produce such a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that objections can only be aimed at the details of making the conversion, not at the desirability of the result. (Unless one is a closet climate denier who believes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is completely unnecessary.) Here is the entirety of French’s arguments as put forward in the Spokesman article:
Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who serves on the State Building Codes Council and has pushed against the electric requirements, noted such a change also would require increasing the electrical capacity at a home or multifamily building. The additional costs would be passed on to renters, he said, and leave them without a source of heat should the power fail in the winter.
The requirement would most directly hit low-income renters and people of color, French argued, increasing their costs of living.
French said the effort to change the building code to require electricity circumvented the Legislature, which refused to forward to a vote a bill this session that would have prohibited expansion of new natural gas services in the state.
“The governor is trying to go around that,” French said.
French’s argument is relies on two longstanding (and very tired) Republican shibboleths:
“It will cost money and hurt the poor.” By this argument everything that has any cost will eventually “hurt the poor”. Using the magic of Republican economic thinking, anything with a cost to producers is posed as a passthrough to consumers. (This is the flip-side of “trickle down” economics. Any expense to business is posed as a passthrough.) French conveniently avoids considering the burdens imposed on the poor by climate change.
Freedom from regulation. Any governmental regulatory meddling with the free market prerogatives of builders and developers is inherently bad simply because regulation is bad. French ignores the fact that free markets, especially today’s free markets, are wildly myopic, focusing on shareholder value in the near term, not the expensive and painful consequences of global warming. Would we have reduced our electrical consumption by switching to LEDs from inefficient incandescents without a regulatory nudge?
Mr. French is at least consistent. He has worked behind the scenes, backed up by realtors and developers, against all efforts to encourage conversion to heat pump technology since the topic first came up in the City of Spokane. (His efforts are detailed in the last half of the post Al French and the Levers of Government.)
Mr. French reveals his stand on global warming in his responses to the WeBelieveWeVote Survey. He marks maximal agreement with a statement that reads in part:
Ironically, pioneers in green industry technology favor increased oil and gas production because: a) green energy development requires fossil fuels; and, b) the transition to clean energy will take longer than predicted.
That is pure doublethink nonsense. Further development of fossil fuels means that conversion to clean energy will take longer.
Mr. French is too much of a cagey politician, as are the WeBelieveWeVote people, to come right out and declare that they think we ought to ignore the issue of global warming—but they doesn’t need to. We are in a hole—and Mr. French wants us to keep digging. He sees no problem.
Maggie Yates is running against Al French for a seat on the Spokane County Commission representing County Commissioner District 5. It is past time for Mr. French to move on. French’s Republican primary opponent, Don Harmon, former Mayor of Airway Heights, agrees. Soon after the primary Mr. Harmon publicly endorsed Ms. Yates. Predictably, French pulls out a wordier but just as flimsy version of Trump’s “RINO!” in response:
“Mr Harmon’s endorsement of my far left liberal opponent clearly demonstrates that he is not a Republican and misled the voters in the primary,” French wrote.
Send French packing in November. We need him to stop digging this hole.
Keep to the high ground,
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