The transition away from coal and other types of thermoelectric power generation and toward boosting the penetration of renewable sources is a solid first step toward decarbonizing a country.

The other important pieces of the puzzle — energy efficiency, electrification, and sustainable transportation — could be more complicated, given that the goal is not a couple of power plants but rather an atomized set of homes, factories, and vehicles.

A powerful instrument for the energy transition is heat pumps, the use of which can reduce electricity bills and carbon emissions from homes and businesses.

Chile, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, is one of the Latin American countries taking the first steps in the area of ​​heat pumps, having conducted pioneering market research with the German international cooperation agency, GIZ, and begun installing units.

Operating costs are much lower than traditional heating or cooling solutions, although some hurdles need to be overcome to boost deployment, a local specialist told BNamericas.

“The main barriers are the lack of knowledge about the technology and its benefits,” said Rodrigo Barraza, an academic and researcher at solar energy research center SERC Chile and energy transition research center Centra at Adolfo Ibáñez University and its Faculty of Engineering and Sciences.

“In some cases it could be that they may have a high initial investment cost, but that is recovered with annual savings due to lower operating costs compared to their alternatives,” he said.

When it comes to boosting the segment, he said that both the public and private sectors have a role to play.

In short, heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat from a cold space to a warm space and vice versa. The system is an energy-efficient alternative to traditional boilers and air conditioning equipment and is championed in the United States and Europe as a tool to reduce carbon emissions from heating and cooling buildings.

Along with air source heat pumps — the common variant — geothermal units have been installed in Chile, including at a school, a fruit packing plant and a home for vulnerable seniors.

With geothermal units, geothermal energy resources (soil or groundwater) can be used with a heat pump to heat and cool homes, factories and greenhouses, among other applications.

An air source heat pump transfers heat between a building and the outside air. Geothermal solutions, while typically requiring a larger initial outlay, achieve greater efficiencies and can reduce consumption by 70-80%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A government bill to encourage the development of low-enthalpy, or shallow, geothermal energy systems has advanced in Chile’s Congress and is now in the Senate. The key pillar of the proposal, introduced in 2019, exempts such initiatives from having to obtain a concession under the current system, which was designed for large-scale power plants. It also proposes the establishment of a registry of projects, both existing and new, and monitoring and safety rules, according to the original text of the bill. The framework focuses on projects that take advantage of geothermal resources at depths less than 400m and with an average temperature below 90°C.

BNamericas will publish the full interview with Barraza in the coming days.

Founded in 2013 through a government science and technology program, SERC is made up of some 80 researchers from six universities and the Chilean unit of the German applied research institute Fraunhofer. In addition to contributing to public policy debate and conducting educational work, SERC members conduct research on solar energy in areas such as water treatment, materials and industrial systems.