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How quickly do you have to buy heat pumps and electric cars to avoid climate catastrophe?


Highlights: How quickly do you have to buy heat pumps and electric cars to avoid climate catastrophe?. How quickly Americans reach this point in green technologies depends on the early adopters. Mainstream customers, about 60 percent of the public, don't adopt the technology until it's matured into familiar, established products, long after it's introduced. The last phase is dominated by the "laggards", those who are least willing to embrace the new technology, such as owners of flip phones in the age of smartphones.

Status: 16.11.2023, 09:43 a.m.


A woman and her children charge their electric car in front of the house. © Westend61/Imago

From heat pumps to electric cars, Americans are embracing green technologies. But acceptance depends on the early adopters.

Judging by the rising sales of green technologies, U.S. households seem to be on the cusp of a low-carbon future. Millions of Americans buy electric vehicles, heat pumps, and induction stoves.

But these figures belie a very different present. For example, only about 3 percent of Americans said they owned an induction stove in 2022.

That's roughly the same percentage of the U.S. population that owned a cell phone in the late 1980s, a few years after the first models hit the market. It took more than two decades for mobile technology to replace landlines.

That's how short the time is to save the climate

Time is even shorter for the climate. To meet net-zero emissions targets and avoid the worst effects of warming, most households will need to adopt a range of new low-carbon technologies by 2050, according to the nonprofit electrification organization Rewiring America. To achieve this, they rely on the "S-curve".

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Virtually every major technology over the past two centuries has followed the same S-shaped path, ranging from obscurity to near-ubiquitous diffusion. Economists can now predict this basic shape with surprising accuracy, although the exact nature of the curve or change in slope varies from product to product.

Some technologies that spread in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century took several decades to become ubiquitous. However, newer innovations have been adopted more quickly.

First, however, tens of thousands of dollars must be spent on climate protection

Experts believe that green technologies such as electric cars and rooftop solar panels could be adopted just as quickly, even if they cost tens of thousands of dollars first.


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Not all new technologies manage to catch on: Segway, the Palm device, 3D television. But those who move up this curve tend to change society.

How quickly Americans reach this point in green technologies depends on the early adopters, about 15 to 20 percent of the population. They set the stage for this exponential growth by trying products before others do.

Take the thousands of die-hards who leased the first modern electric car, the EV1, launched by General Motors in 1996. It had a range of 74 miles at a time when drivers had virtually nowhere to charge except in their garage.

Climate Products: Mainstream Customers Wait for New Technologies to Establish Themselves

"They're a special group of people who are willing to endure the pain of an early product," says Carolina Milanesi, president of technology research firm Creative Strategies, "and they're proud of it.

Mainstream customers, about 60 percent of the public, don't adopt the technology until it's matured into familiar, established products, long after it's introduced, resulting in years of exponential growth.

The last phase is dominated by the "laggards", those who are least willing to embrace the new technology, such as owners of flip phones in the age of smartphones.

Rewiring America has modeled the S-curve that products must follow to meet the Biden administration's zero-emissions goals by 2050. Americans are well on their way to achieving these goals, but in order to achieve higher adoption, obstacles such as high costs and a limited number of available models must be overcome.

Calculations suggest that Americans will replace the technologies about every 15 years

"We have every reason to believe that electrification technologies are following the same S-shaped curve that other technologies have followed in the past," says Cora Wyent, research director of Rewiring America. "We didn't miss the boat with any of them."

The steepness of the curve depends on how many households have already adopted the technologies and what percentage could reasonably adopt them by mid-century. The calculations assume that the Americans will replace these technologies about every 15 years.

Here's a look at where we are today and where we need to be in the coming decades, and the role of those who are early adopters of these technologies.

Heat pump HVAC (space heating and cooling)

Heat pumps are no longer reliant on early adopters, although they are still in the early stages of the cycle, suggesting that Americans are on track to meet net-zero targets by 2050. Among clean technologies, it is so far the most popular among Americans.

Last year, 4 million new heat pumps were installed in U.S. households, which is about half of all new residential heating systems sold, dwarfing gas stoves for the first time.

In some regions of the country, they have been installed for years, so that 16 percent of U.S. households already use electric heat pumps for space heating.

In many parts of the country, heat pumps are already cheaper to install and operate than fossil fuel-powered stoves. You'll save up to $1,000 per year compared to traditional ovens while reducing emissions by several tons per year. Add in the generous new incentives offered by state, local, and federal programs, and many devices can pay for themselves over their lifetime.

"Heat pumps make economic sense for many consumers in the U.S.," says Erich Muehlegger, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis. "The main reason for this is not people who want to be the first to own a heat pump, but someone who needs to replace something and sees heat pumps as a good opportunity.

The biggest obstacle could be awareness: In a 2020 survey, household electrification and insulation company Sealed found that half of respondents had no idea what heat pumps were.

Electric vehicles

The acceptance of electric cars is increasing rapidly. The United States has already crossed the possible "tipping point" of about 5 to 10 percent of new sales, at which growth accelerates, according to researchers.

Although most electric car owners are still early adopters, the first buyers are likely to switch to electric cars in the coming years as the technology becomes cheaper and more convenient.

According to BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group, in the first half of 2023, 8 percent of all passenger cars sold in the United States will be electric vehicles.

Still, the vast majority of the more than 280 million cars on U.S. roads run on fossil fuels, and only 4 percent are electric.

A skeptical public and sporadic changes in the infrastructure act as an obstacle. A survey by the Washington Post and the University of Maryland found that nearly half of adults still prefer a gasoline-powered car or truck. Only about a third say that electric vehicles are better suited for everyday use.

"As the market for electric cars continues to grow, it is encountering groups that have to make significant sacrifices," says Muehlegger. "The technological rollout of EVs is not going to be smooth because it is happening at the same time that all the other parts of the transport network are falling into place.

A more likely scenario could be that regional, urban markets start early, while areas with fewer charging stations and incentives are left behind.

Home Solar Cells

Five percent of U.S. households have solar panels on their roofs, most of them in California.

Not all roofs are suitable for solar panels, and there are other options, such as the use of solar energy by utilities and communities. As a result, Rewiring America aims to reach 65%, or 80 million households, by mid-century.

This will be a gradual transition that will not fully get underway until later this decade. But as the prices of solar panels and batteries fall and new incentives for building owners come into effect, we are likely to see a massive increase in installations.

The number of residential solar installations has been steadily increasing and will reach a record 2022.6 gigawatts in 4 – enough to power about 1 million homes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A January 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 39 percent of homeowners have seriously considered installing solar panels in the past year.


Most Americans already cook with electricity. That means fewer of them will need to switch to new, cleaner cooking technology, which is why Rewiring America predicts a relatively flat S-curve.

About 39 percent of Americans still cook with gas and propane stoves. Induction cookers are the leading contender for electrification, but so far they are only found in about 3% of households.

It will take a while for Americans to reach the 43 percent of households that Rewiring America estimates should be converted by 2035 to meet climate goals. To achieve this goal, the nonprofit estimates that an additional 1.8 million induction cookers will need to be sold over the next three years to keep the technology on track. By 2032, the organization estimates, sales will have to increase five times above current levels.

The S-curve for induction cookers is relatively flat because so many homes already have electric stoves. By 2035, it will peak at 43 percent of households, ensuring that almost all households switch to gas and propane before mid-century.

Fortunately, induction cookers are booming right now. A record number of models are being launched at lower prices by brands such as GE and Viking, although they are still more expensive on average.

Water heating

Only 1 percent of U.S. households have installed heat pump water heaters that provide hot water using high-efficiency heat pumps, making them one of the least common air conditioning technologies in U.S. homes.

Even well into the next decade, Rewiring America estimates that only a fraction of homes will have a heat pump. In order to achieve the climate targets, the sale of heat pump water heaters must therefore increase drastically between 2030 and 2040.

According to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 140,000 units were sold last year, which is less than 2 percent of total water heater sales.

Only a few households have these devices installed. Since heat pumps are much more efficient than electric resistance water heaters and natural gas, they are expected to completely displace all other types of water heaters.

Sales are growing rapidly and have roughly doubled since 2017. Early adopters play the biggest role in this, says Wyent. "Few people know they exist," she says. "They have the longest road ahead of them. It's an exciting place for early adopters to play a role."

The most important reason for the switch is cost savings. The devices are up to four times more efficient than comparable gas water heaters and save an average of one ton of CO2 per year, reports the nonprofit New Buildings Institute. The appliances cost about $117 annually to run for a family of four, compared to $200 for a gas water heater or $550 for an electrical resistor.

Gas-fired water heaters, which currently account for about half of all water heaters sold, may have already begun their final demise.

Are we on the right track?

Early adopters may drive the growth of electrification technologies, but without concerted action — incentives, tax credits, public education, and workforce training for installation — the process will be too slow.

Business, politics and technology are finally pushing in the same direction. According to an analysis by market research firm Sightline Climate, the Inflation Reduction Act and state and local incentives are expected to reduce the cost of climate technologies by about 40 percent. When it comes to clean energy options, there have never been better products, lower prices, or more generous incentives.

"Are we on the right track?" asks Doyne Farmer, director of the Complexity Economics Program at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School. "We're more on the right track than people think. . . . The thing about exponential [growth] is that it's small, it's small, it's small, and then all of a sudden it gets very big."

In the early 1980s, AT&T asked McKinsey consultants for an estimate of how many mobile customers the company might have at the turn of the century, according to a report in the Economist.

Their response – 900,000 subscribers – was in line with the number of new customers who would join mobile services every three days by 2020.

About the authors

Michael is a journalist and writes the advice column "Climate Coach" for the Washington Post. Prior to joining the Post in 2022, he spent nearly two decades as a reporter and editor covering climate, technology, and economics for media outlets such as Quartz and He was also the managing editor of Cambodia's Phnom Penh Post.

Niko Kommenda is a graphic reporter on The Washington Post's climate and environment team. Prior to joining the Post Office, he worked as a visual journalist for the Financial Times and the Guardian.

We are currently testing machine translations. This article has been automatically translated from English into German.

This article was first published in English by the "" on November 14, 2023 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to IPPEN readers. MEDIA portals.

Source: merkur

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