In depth coverage of our energy policies and principles in action.
Heat Pumps: A Success Story
This case study is about the climate and cost benefits of heat pumps. It is also about celebrating a climate success. One of our guiding principles is that climate successes must be acknowledged and celebrated. We think Acadia Center is Getting Climate Right with respect to its new report: “Clean Heating Pathways: The Costs of Fossil Fuel Heating and the Benefits of Heat Pumps."
The Acadia Center report first details how heat pumps reduce emissions, stating:
“Greenhouse gas emissions are also significantly reduced by converting to heat pumps, even in cases where the heat pump meets only part of a building’s heating needs. Switching completely from oil heat to heat pumps would reduce an average home’s emissions by 58 tons over the equipment life— equivalent to taking about 12 cars off the road for 1 year.”
It then demonstrates the significant lifetime emissions savings of heat pumps partially or fully displacing natural gas, oil, and propane. As the state most reliant on petroleum (oil and propane) for heating, Maine can make a huge climate impact by properly supporting heat pumps.
Acadia Center takes this powerful data a step further and advocates for the strategy we endorse: electrify heating (and transportation) first and then strategically make the electric grid more renewable over time. Acadia Center states:
“Emissions attributable to the electric use from heat pumps will decline as states continue to shift electricity generation to renewable and cleaner sources. Installing heat pumps today creates a “renewable-ready” infrastructure that will take advantage of a cleaner grid as more renewables come online.”
We enthusiastically support this approach, which recognizes the current emissions advantage of heat pumps given today’s electric fuel mix and the efficient approach of creating “renewable-ready” heating infrastructure now to take increasing advantage of cleaner electricity as renewables strategically decarbonize the electric grid over time.
Implicit in this theory is the need to keep electricity affordable, so heat pumps conversions occur as rapidly as possible. Inefficiently spending money on renewables now (e.g., small solar), will needlessly increase electricity costs, delay heat pump conversions, and slow climate progress.
Acadia Center’s report also details the cost advantage of heat pumps over fossil fuels: “These savings vary, depending on the configuration and fossil fuel being displaced. For example, an average home that fully converts from propane to heat pumps could save $1,650 annually on fuel.”
While we believe this is and should be true, it is not necessarily so. The cost-savings of a heat pump depends on the price of electricity relative to the price of the fossil fuel the heat pump is displacing. The higher efficiency of a heat pump will always give it an advantage over fossil fuel heating systems, but electricity prices could get high enough to eliminate that advantage or even make heat pumps more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives.
Acadia Center points out a form of the challenge:
“While consumers will save money on heating and cooling by using heat pumps, those savings may not be great enough to overcome initial barriers to adoption, such as retrofit costs or the perceived risk of an unfamiliar system.”
“If operating costs are reduced, consumers can save even more from heat pumps, encouraging more homeowners to consider clean heat options in their existing or new homes while minimizing grid impacts from electrification.”
The solution is simple: control the cost of electricity. Avoid inefficient climate policies, those that will needlessly increase the price of electricity without a “big climate bang for the buck.”