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Helping Families, One Electric Heat Pump Water Heater At A Time

A couple of weeks ago, CleanTechnica profiled an important way to electrify everything equitably.

A couple of weeks ago, CleanTechnica profiled an important way to electrify everything equitably. A Portland nonprofit, Verde, is leading an effort to lower electricity costs for those who earn less income. This work ensures that when we electrify everything, it doesn’t burden communities with an aging gas infrastructure system while the rest of us switch to cheaper, cleaner electricity.

In this article, we’ll profile another nonprofit tackling this challenge from a different angle by installing heat pump water heaters, for free, in low-income households that previously relied on gas. The Community Energy Project (CEP) and Electrify Now, an org I volunteer for, have teamed up to remove old natural gas water heaters and replace them with highly efficient, all-electric, heat pump water heaters at no cost to income qualified households. And they fund this program, in part, by collecting donations from individuals and companies who are trying to offset their carbon emissions. They call it, “Electrify Everyone.”

Postcard sent to income qualified households in the Portland region

The inspiration for this work was a lack of funding. CEP, which has been helping families weatherize their homes for over 40 years, has grant funding to replace old, inefficient, electric water heaters with new heat pump water heaters. Yet, when they found a home with an old inefficient gas water, they often couldn’t do anything to help these families. This is because of “fuel switching” rules in Oregon which prohibit funding that encourages consumers to change from electric to gas and vice versa. Enter Electrify Now. By raising private donations, Electrify Now and CEP have been able to get around these pesky fuel-switching rules and create a program that directly funds gas to electric water heater conversions, optimizing for carbon reductions and cost savings.

Desiree & Charlotte Get An Efficient Water Heater

Desiree and Charlotte live in North Portland. Desiree is a nurse and takes care of her mom, Charlotte, who is retired. Charlotte is on a fixed income, and with utilities increasing every year, she signed up to replace their 16 year old gas water heater with an efficient heat pump water heater to save money and the planet. 

“It’s not something that we, as a family, could possibly do on our own. To go out and pick (an appliance) that we would want, the best, the most efficient, the most responsible – just isn’t financially feasible for us. This program provided a way for us to do what we would want to do if we had the funds.”

Desiree and Charlotte’s new heat pump water heater. The yellow sticker on the side indicates that this heat pump water heater will cost only $113 dollars to run per yea

Prior to the Electrify Everyone program, CEP wouldn’t have been able to help Desiree and Charlotte and they would have most likely replaced their hot water heater out of pocket with another gas one, locking them into another 15+ years of heating water with fracked methane, and higher utility bills. With a new electric heat pump water heater, they’ll save hundreds of dollars a year in reduced fuel expenses and over 37 tons of CO2 over the lifetime of the water heater by using cleaner and more efficient electricity. A typical gas water heater in Oregon produces 2.3 tons of CO2/yr or higher. A HPWH produces around 0.4 tons of CO2/yr when it is powered by electricity from the Oregon grid, and those emissions go to zero when it is powered by renewable energy. 

Desiree emphasized that, for her mom, Charlotte, environmental reasons outweighed monetary savings as the most important factor for participation in this program.

Scaling Up

Community Energy Project and Electrify Now launched the program in the summer of 2020 and recently installed the first five hot water heaters. The response, from individuals and companies wanting to donate funds and help offset some of their own carbon emissions, has been tremendous. Based on existing donations, the project team aspires to install over 100 water heaters in low income households, and hopes for future expansion through additional donations.

The program is not an officially certified carbon offset program, but through program education, donors learn that electric heat pumps for water heating is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce carbon emissions. Plus, the program keeps donations local, so donors know that their money is helping people in their community to save money on utility bills and fight climate change at the same time. Switching from gas to electric also furthers the transition away from fossil fuels and proves that electrification is for everyone, not just those who track, and can afford, the latest technologies.

$750 in donations will trigger one water heater replacement. This means that $20 in donations will avoid 1 ton of CO2. The remaining installation costs are matched with other types of grant funding. Both partners see potential to easily replicate the model in other places.

Yameta & Her Daughters Go Electric

Yameta and her daughter with the new and old water heaters!

Yameta is a mom with two daughters of color, age 5 and 22. Her motivation to upgrade her house comes from wanting to make her daughters’ lives better. She sees the connection between big outcomes for climate change (pollution, water quality, etc.) and small upgrades to her house. 

“I want my daughters to have clean air and water. The pollution and the fires scare me. I believe it, and we need to do what we can now to help the future. More people are interested in green energy than you think. It’s just cost, cost, cost! [With clean energy] it only works if 80% of us do it. It’s like a vaccine that way!”

Yameta replaced her gas water heater with a heat pump water heater and is well on her way to electrifying her household to make it as efficient as possible. It’s a win-win for her, the city, and the climate.

Closing Thoughts

To solve our climate crisis, we all need to replace all fossil-fuel based appliances in our homes with efficient appliances that run on renewable electricity. For those who can afford it, converting water and space heating to heat pump technology is a must do — the sooner, the better. For those who can’t, programs like the Electrify Everyone Fund should be in place to lend a hand. Water heating is a great place to start, as heat pumps both reduce emissions by over 50% when compared to gas, and save households hundreds of dollars a year in utilities. Let’s work together and make this technology available to everyone.

To learn more about the Electrify Everyone program check out the CEP website. Learn more about heat pump water heaters and register for an upcoming webinar on the topic. Huge thanks to Naomi Cole and Anne Kramer for their help with this article. 

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Written By

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for the nonprofit New Buildings Institute, which promotes electric and decarbonized buildings. He also volunteers with Electrify Now because he believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. And of course, Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.


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