June 28, 2019

VRF Heat Pumps Are Ready to Decarbonize Commercial Buildings

Peter McPhee, Program Director, Renewable Thermal

On June 28, 2019, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center announced the closure of our Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) heat pump program. Over the last two years we’ve supported 110 large commercial buildings in transitioning from fossil fuel heating to highly efficient heat pumps. In doing do, we’ve helped demonstrate that the technology, industry, and market exists today for VRF heat pumps.

We started down this pathway two years ago with one primary question in mind: how do we decarbonize heating in commercial buildings? Commercial building heating makes up nearly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts, and we wanted to test an approach for reducing commercial building emissions to near zero by 2050. Because Massachusetts is legally mandated to reduce state-wide emissions 80% by 2050, this is a problem we need to solve.

Shutting down this program is bittersweet. On one hand, we demonstrated that VRF is a viable, broadly applicable low-carbon heating solution for commercial buildings. And I think we helped the industry sharpen their legitimacy and trajectory of growth. On the other hand, our program was so popular that it ran out of money and had to end prematurely. And we haven’t yet established a sufficient alternative to incentivizing this technology. To hit our greenhouse gas reduction targets we need to accelerate the rate of adoption of this technology, which means putting VRF on the table for every renovation, heating system replacement, and new build.

Our program contributed to eliminating the tens of thousands of tons of carbon emissions that would have come from the natural gas and oil used to heat these buildings. We also believe that each and every one of these projects has a superior heating and cooling system that is more comfortable than the fossil fuel alternative. Perhaps most importantly, we demonstrated that the time is right to promote low carbon heating and building electrification in Massachusetts, and that it is a critical component of our climate change mitigation strategy. I hope that my colleagues from other states and energy efficiency programs learn from our experience and are able to build upon the place we left off. 

Kudos to colleagues past and present (in particular Josh Kessler, Anna Hagadorn, and Jacqueline Guyol) who were critical parts of the industry research, program design, and operation of this program. And I’m grateful for our partners in industry who helped shape what we did and brought these projects from concept to reality.

There is a bright future ahead for VRF heat pumps: they are a critical tool in our strategy to tackle climate change.