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A Cold War law could be used to boost heat pump production

Home owner Tom Simon watched as Weatherization Works technician Paul Lawson installed one of three cold-climate heat pumps at Simon's house. These heat pumps heat homes in the winter and cool them in the summer by circulating fluid like an air conditioner.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Democrats and climate advocates are demanding the White House invoke a Cold War-era law to boost domestic manufacturing of heat pumps and other clean energy technologies, arguing it could simultaneously counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and fend off climate change.

The Defense Production Act enables the president to force manufacturers to expand the production of crucial goods in times of crisis. President Truman wielded the law in the early 1950s to bolster steel production for the Korean War. Former president Trump and President Biden used it to boost the manufacturing of ventilators and medical masks respectively.

Biden invoked the act again on March 31 to increase the nation’s output of critical minerals for electric vehicle and long-term storage batteries. Amid spiking fuel prices, the White House says the policy will boost access to technologies that don’t require gas. But now there’s a push for him to do more.

Lawmakers led by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, and Representative Jason Crow of Colorado recently introduced legislation that would require Biden to pour billions into reinvigorating the clean technology sector, including $10 billion to procure and install heat pumps.

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Supporters say the proposal presents the opportunity to use executive power to achieve climate policy goals at a time when Congress is reluctant to do so.

“There’s a huge dearth of green energy manufacturing in the United States. That’s a threat to Americans’ safety,” said Jean Su, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who coauthored a February report on how Biden can use his executive authority to spur climate policy. “Biden doesn’t have to wait around for Congress or the private sector to treat that as a crisis. He has the power to act.”

She noted that the current version of the Defense Production Act explicitly states that it can be used to boost the production of “renewable energy sources (including solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass sources)” as a way to build energy security. Since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, the White House has faced increasing pressure to do just that.

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In February, author and environmental activist Bill McKibben authored a piece suggesting Biden use the law to quickly scale up the production of heat pumps to send to EU nations, which rely heavily on oil and gas imported from Russia.

Soon after, a group of over 200 organizations sent a letter to the White House endorsing McKibben’s proposal and expanding it to cover other clean technologies, and to be used for not only exports to Europe but also for the United States itself.

“Yes, we need to help our European allies, but we also need to help ourselves,” said Su.

The idea has captured officials’ attention. White House officials are reportedly considering it, and five senators, led by Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, wrote a second letter asking Biden to use his executive authorities, including those in the Defense Production Act, to “support and increase manufacturing capacity” for heat pumps and other clean technologies.

“Putin’s war machine is fueled and funded by oil and gas, and it’s critical for the US and Europe to rapidly accelerate the transition toward clean energy independence, which will cut costs for families and safeguard our national security,” Warren wrote in an e-mail.

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Advocates say deploying heat pumps could not only help wrest the energy system from the grip of autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin but also help people struggling with their energy bills while fuel prices are spiking and inflation is on the rise. Bush noted that in the United States, low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately affected by rising energy prices.

Wind and solar are currently the cheapest sources of electricity on the US grid. Steve Pantano, head of research at the electrification-focused think tank Rewiring America, said their prices are also more stable.

”Anyone living in one of the 57 million US homes with gas heat or 10 million US homes with oil or propane heat has seen their bills rise dramatically this year,” he said.

According to the International Energy Association, he said, residential heating oil prices are up nearly 69 percent over the past year; gas and propane prices are up nearly 30 percent. Meanwhile, residential electricity prices have increased by only about 12 percent.

Currently, since heat pumps run on the electric grid — most of which is still powered by coal, oil and gas — they are not carbon-free. But they are more efficient than fossil-powered heating systems, and as the US brings more renewable power online — which is essential to avoiding the worst effects of global warming — electrical devices will become greener.

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Still, critics say there are limits to the proposal. In an interview with the Washington Post, Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at the electrification-focused think tank RMI — which supports heat pump production and deployment efforts — pointed out that International Energy Agency figures estimate that while doubling the rate of heat pump installation in the EU would save 2 billion cubic meters of gas within the first year, just turning down the thermostat by 1 degree Celsius in every home would save five times that amount. Then again, there’s only so much governments can do to get individuals to lower their heat.

The legislation enjoys wide support within the Democratic Party, including from more centrist lawmakers like Colorado’s Crow and New Jersey Representative Mikie Sherrill. Neither the House nor Senate bill has garnered Republican support.

A group of Republican senators has issued a bill aiming to prevent unilateral climate action, which argues that “Congress should take steps to strengthen our national security by implementing all-of-the-above energy policies that include our competitive advantage in fossil energy production.”

Meanwhile, the right-leaning energy think tank Citizens for Responsible Climate Solutions is calling for focus on boosting mining for critical minerals used for batteries and technologies like nuclear and carbon capture. And Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has blocked major climate policies, has proposed that Biden use the Defense Production Act to fast-track a stalled gas pipeline.

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Even after the conflict in Ukraine ends, advocates say, the law could still be used to counter climate change.

“I think we should be having, quite frankly, a wartime mentality about climate change,” Nathan Taft, senior digital campaigner at the group Stand.Earth, said. “Climate change itself is an emergency.”


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.