Converting From Fuel Oil To Heat Pumps Would Save The US 47% Of The Oil We Used To Import From Russia

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To save the planet from catastrophic climate change, and win the war against belligerent petro-states, our best strategy boils down to the rapid deployment of three key technologies: electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, and heat pumps. The first two technologies are flashy and compelling and show up daily in CleanTechnica articles and other publications (as they should).

The Mighty Heat Pump

Two-thirds of building energy use goes to space and water heating. Heat pumps can decarbonize this. Source: Energy Information Administration

The third, heat pumps, may not be as showy as solar panels and EVs, but they are equally crucial and sometimes a fraction of the investment cost. Two-thirds of building energy use is currently used for space and water heating, and heat pumps consume one quarter of the energy of other heating sources and run on electricity, which can be (and increasingly is) produced by renewables.

Heat pumps typically displace old, inefficient electric resistance heating or fossil, fracked gas. But in the Northeast there is another, significant low-hanging fossil fuel that can be replaced too; a vast legacy of expensive heating oil that is used to heat homes and water.

With oil prices at all-time highs due to the Russian embargo, I wanted to delve a little deeper into this fossil fuel that could quickly be phased out, so I sat down with staff from Efficiency Maine. Maine is a leader in heat pump installations and conversions in the US and I wanted to understand the secret to their success and how the rest of the nation and world might replicate it.

Legacy Heating Oil

Maine illustrates the potential of converting our heating systems away from fossil fuels, particularly heating oil. 60% of Maine’s 1.4 million inhabitants, or 450,000 homes, rely on oil for heat (source). This is the nation’s highest oil heating per capita. My cousin, who moved to Maine last year, confirmed this for me in his firsthand account of spending $600 every couple of weeks this past winter to refill his oil drum even though his family’s house is set to a chilly 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17 Celsius) during the winter in an attempt to save money.

Leaking oil tank — image courtesy of Maine Department of Environmental Protection

Many New Englanders not only heat their home with oil but also their household water. This means families must run their boilers all summer burning expensive, polluting oil even when it’s hot outside.

Meanwhile, 79% (and growing) of Maine’s electricity comes from renewable energy and by using this renewable electricity in heat pumps to heat their homes and water, Mainers spend half as much as oil and one-third as much as propane demonstrating the profound opportunity for the state and the country at large. Electricity both costs less and is much better for the planet.

Astounding Heat Pump Successes

The people who see and are perhaps most excited about this opportunity work at Efficiency Maine, a state-wide, quasi-governmental organization that helps Mainers save money by providing incentives for energy-efficient systems. Andy Meyer, who is the senior program manager of Efficiency Maine’s residential program, told me that 60% of water heaters sold in Maine are heat pump water heaters. This is 30 times the national number, which sits at just 2%. Since 2013, Efficiency Maine has rebated 47,000 heat pump water heaters, the highest per capita in the US. Maine’s program is successful because it is tackling the two biggest hurdles currently facing the transition to this crucial technology: cost and awareness.

Heat pump water heaters will save homeowners an average of $3,500 over a 10-year period, but Efficiency Maine recognizes that hardly anyone has the extra cash to buy a water heater that costs $1,000 or more up front even if the payback is better than any 401k. This upfront cost presents a major barrier, so Efficiency Maine works with distributors and big retail stores to offer discounts and incentives that can bring the price of a heat pump water heater down to the price of a standard (aka old-fashioned) one.

But cost reduction only goes so far if people have never heard about a technology. Efficiency Maine gets the word out about heat pump water heaters in a targeted, effective way. It doesn’t advertise widely, but instead targets customers searching for water heaters on Google and walking down water heater aisles in stores because, as Andy says, “the only time anyone thinks about their water heater is when they need a new one.” You cannot buy an electric water heater in Maine without hearing Efficiency Maine’s message. They place banners in hardware stores, train hardware store staff throughout the state, and offer access to a database of hundreds of installers.

Examples of how Efficiency Maine promotes heat pump water heaters. Photos courtesy of Efficiency Maine.

The proof is in the pudding, and Maine’s success shows what’s required for a national, and even international, strategy to transition to heat pumps. Through rebates, advertising, and a couple other strategies to help low-income Mainers (which I’ll tackle in a future article), Efficiency Maine has shown us how to run a successful program that gets heat pumps into homes.

What All These Heat Pumps Mean For Saving The Planet & Winning The War

Rapid heat pump deployment, like in Maine, has surprising implications not only for the climate, but also for the geopolitical situation we find ourselves in.

About a third of the heat pump water heaters sold in Maine replaced oil boilers while the other two-thirds replaced propane, natural gas and electric resistance water heaters (which will free up grid capacity for those converting from fossil fuels). Here’s where the back of the envelope math, which I’m a fan of, gets fun.

If we take the 15,666 oil water heaters that Maine has converted to heat pumps and multiply them by the approximately 128 gallons of fuel oil (source) they’ll save per year, we get 47,000 barrels of oil annually that mighty little Maine alone is saving just with heat pump water heaters. 

For context, that’s enough to run close to 4,000 cars for a year.

And if the US were to get more ambitious and convert all oil-fueled boilers that serve homes and businesses in the US to heat pumps, we could save 120,000,000 barrels of oil per year. Incredibly, that number is just about half  (47%) of the 255,000,000 barrels we used to import from Russia or 2% of our total national yearly oil consumption. 

No need to drill baby drill, we just need to heat pump our oil demand away and in the process we’ll save Americans thousands on energy bills, reduce emissions of CO2 and protect our national security. As the chart below shows, while we don’t use as much oil as the bell-bottom-wearing generation of the 1970s, we still haven’t kicked this expensive habit. It’s time to do so.

Why isn’t the use of fuel oil at zero?

Expanding our focus to Europe, we see how heat pumps and heat pump water heaters could alter the geo-political game by eliminating the need for another fossil fuel — natural gas. This is why Bill McKibben proposed sending millions of heat pumps to Europe using the Defense Authorization Act and why the US Department of Energy is funding projects in the Northeast this summer to help people switch from fossil-fuel-powered water heaters to heat pumps. 

Mighty Maine, with its cold climate and focus on efficiency, is showing us how it makes utmost geopolitical and environmental sense to move inefficient 20th century heating systems to efficient, clean, heat pumps for space and water heating. Let’s follow their lead and get to work!

Related: A Heat Pump Water Heater Is The Energy Saving Equivalent Of 7 Solar Panels & Costs ⅙ The Price

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Joe Wachunas

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works to promote electric and decarbonized buildings. He believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

Joe Wachunas has 67 posts and counting. See all posts by Joe Wachunas