Heat Pump Wars In Maine

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New England and much of the northeast United States suffered through a brutal cold snap lately. The weather observatory atop Mount Washington recorded the coldest wind chill temperature in its history — minus 108º F. Such record low temperatures surely must be knocking the stuffing out the idea that a heat pump can keep New Englanders warm in winter, right?

Actually, no. Much to the surprise of many — especially those who sell heating oil  and propane — a heat pump designed for operation in low temperatures (not all of them are) is quite capable of functioning just fine even when the temperature outside falls below zero. That message is getting around. According to the Washington Post, people in Maine are embracing heat pumps. Maine may not be the coldest state in the nation, but it is known for long winters. Old timers have been heard to say the weather in Maine is “nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding.”

Tens of thousands of Maine residents have installed heat pumps lately, mostly because of the high price of heating oil and propane. The electricity needed to operate heat pumps can cost hundreds of dollars a month less than those fossil fuels, which us a pretty powerful incentive to make the switch. So many have done so that the oil and gas industries have cranked up campaigns designed to sow fear and doubt about those newfangled machines.

Heat Pump FUD

According to the Washington Post, the National Oilheat Research Alliance, a trade association representing heating oil sellers, has funded campaigns fighting electrification that target New England homeowners and real estate agents. The Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewables group, obtained the documents through a public records request and shared them with newspaper. The alliance’s propane counterpart, the Propane Education and Research Council, has put out training material coaching installers how to dissuade customers from switching to electrical appliances.

“The ‘electrify everything’ movement is moving forward across the Northeast and in other parts of the country with a vengeance,” Richard Carrione, a consultant paid by the National Oilheat Research Alliance, wrote last fall in an industry magazine. “It will be incumbent on our industry to educate and activate Mainers about the pitfalls of electrification,” he wrote. “The battle has just begun. Stay tuned.”

Love It Or Leave It

Marianna Casagranda, who lives in Freeport, took advantage of a Maine program that assists residents to install a heat pump. She says her heat pump worked great during this past weekend’s Arctic blast and is delighted at how much she is saving on her energy bills. Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency, offers rebates that cover part of the cost of a heat pump. In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act provides a new federal tax credit worth as much as $2,000.

The 19-home Maine pilot program promised participants who switched to a heat pump they could have their old propane furnace back if they weren’t satisfied. So far, none have asked to do so. Casagranda said she is more than satisfied. “It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s really a good system. I’m really excited our state is so forward thinking, and we have to be, because we live in a drop-dead gorgeous part of this country and we’re invested in keeping it that way.” When temperatures outside her door dropped below zero last weekend, she says, “The house was great!”

The Maine Energy Marketers Association, the oil industry’s voice at the state level, is promoting a different message on its website. It warns that most Maine homeowners can’t rely on heat pumps as a sole source of heating. It says that because heat pumps run on electricity that’s still made by burning natural gas they are “no greener than the furnace in your basement. Overall, heat pumps have not typically been popular in places with climates like the Northeast.”

Even accounting for using electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, researchers have found that switching to a heat pump usually reduces a building’s carbon emissions. “It’s a simple fact that a high-efficiency cold-climate heat pump saves carbon relative to utility gas (methane), fuel oil, or [liquefied petroleum] gas, in virtually every electric market in the U.S., and certainly in all of the Northeast,” Bruce Harley, a veteran energy consultant based in Vermont, said in an email.

It’ll Break The Grid!

The Maine Energy Marketers Association raised questions about heat pump viability by suggesting they would tax the region’s electric grid. In 2021, ISO New England, the state’s power grid operator, warned of rolling blackouts because of supply chain issues affecting natural gas. Yet the trade group’s president blamed the situation on the state’s promotion of heat pumps.

“Our power grid is not equipped to handle the demand that is now being put on it,” Charles Summers said in a radio interview. Summers said he and his fellow industry group leaders in New England had sent letters to their governors “asking that states pushing so hard toward electrification, pushing complete conversion to heat pumps, just tap the brakes for a few minutes.”

Oddly enough, these sorts of warnings seldom come from grid operators. They always come from special interest groups with an ax to grind. If a heat pump revolution is a threat to the electrical grid, don’t you think the grid operator should be the one to send that message?

Many CleanTechnica readers will recall that when Texas experienced record cold temperatures in 2021, the governor blamed renewables for electricity blackouts even though most of the problems were caused by failures in the state’s methane delivery system.

In interviews and emails with the Washington Post, officials affiliated with the heating oil and propane groups all sought to distance themselves from the anti-electrification efforts. Michael Devine, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance, said his group has played no role crafting its state-level affiliates’ messaging. Because it is a federally chartered trade association, the money it collects on fees is supposed to be spent on research, training, and consumer education. “We may pay the invoices for these consultants, but we do not hire them,” said Devine, adding that state groups have autonomy over their individual campaigns. Jeeze, could you be any more of a weasel word artist, Michael?

The Heat Pump & Aroostook County

Aroostook County in Maine is one of the coldest parts of a cold state. It’s that big bulge at the northern tip of the state that juts far into Canada. You might think it’s a place where the heat pump would not be welcome, but you would be wrong.

Despite the bitter cold, residents and businesses are embracing the heat pump. Demand “has just exploded,” Keith Ouellette, a heat pump installer in Aroostook County tells the Washington Post. “When people call me, it’s not like they say, ‘Sell me on it.’ They’re already sold. They’re asking, ‘When can you come?’” He says the conventional wisdom that a heat pump works best as a supplement to an oil or propane. furnace has flipped. “Most people use it for their primary heating system.”

“If they really didn’t work in the cold, you would think people would stop buying these things, but they haven’t,” says Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. In a state with fewer than 600,000 occupied housing units, the agency has already given out rebates for 116,000 heat pumps, far more than its original goal of 100,000 units by 2025. While Stoddard said some were skeptical of the agency’s initial efforts to recruit installers and boost the market, now there is little doubt that heat pumps can function in cold climates, and his agency is experimenting with new uses such as mobile homes.

The Takeaway

Across the country, similar turf wars are playing out, the Post says. As more cities ban gas hookups in new buildings and some states offer incentives for residents to ditch their furnaces, industry groups are fighting back with an array of anti-electrification messaging. The lessons from the tobacco industry are now applied routinely by any group who sees their profits jeopardized by new technologies, whether it is electric cars or renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines.

The message here was distilled by Mark Twain many years ago in this pithy saying: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you near as much as what you do know that ain’t true.” The FUD war against the heat pump is over. The heat pump won, not because of any ideological advantage, but because it does pretty much what an oil or propane furnace does for less money. Not even the lies and innuendos of industry trade groups can offset the facts. Case closed.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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