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Heat Pumps in Every Home - It's Your Move

Stephen Lewis

Winter 2023

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Thanksgiving has come and gone, and as the last vestiges of an unusually warm autumn are fading away we are starting to turn up the heat in our homes again. In Connecticut, most homes are heated with the combustion of fossil fuels like oil and gas. That means, for the approximately 52% of Connecticut homes that use heating oil, they will burn about 400 million gallons of oil this heating season, and another 35% of homes will be burning comparably large quantities of methane gas. 


The first thing we think of when we turn up our thermostat is what will it cost us this winter? We are also painfully aware that heating costs are always on the rise and subject to price volatility. But what about the air pollution and the impact to climate change? If you look out at your neighbors’ houses on a cold morning, you can see every chimney is spewing out a plume of smoke from the furnace, boiler or water heater inside, and that has significant negative consequences for our health and climate.


According to a new Sierra Club report, “burning fossil fuels for space and water heating emits health-harming and climate-disrupting pollution, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and carbon dioxide (CO2).  The negative outcomes caused by this pollution disproportionately burdens vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, low-income communities, communities of color, renters, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions.”


In addition to the serious public health consequences of heating our homes and water with fossil fuels, the home heating sector is now the second largest source of greenhouse gasses in our state behind transportation, and we are not moving fast enough to meet our climate targets. 


The good news is that we have widely available solutions to the affordability, health, and climate costs of heating our homes and water with fossil fuels – and so you should make a plan to replace your boiler, furnace or water heater with heat pumps when those older technologies begin to fail. 


Why switch to heat pumps? Heat pumps are reliable and affordable ways to heat and cool your home even in very cold climates. Heat pumps can be either a ground source (often referred to as geothermal), or air source unit (also known as ductless mini-splits). The idea is these machines move heat instead of making it, and thereby deliver significantly more heating energy than the electricity they use.  They take warmth from the ground or air from the outside and move it into your home during the winter, and in the summer, they remove the heat in your home and move it outside. They also dehumidify and filter your air as well.


Studies show that heat pumps can save you a lot of money when you switch over from fossil fuel heating  and electric baseboard heating.  According to data from the National Renewable Energy Lab as highlighted in Carbon Switch, homeowners can save hundreds of dollars a year when replacing fossil fuels with a heat pump.  


So why not let the market take care of itself if there is an economic reason for consumers to switch? The barriers are two-fold.  First, heat pumps are expensive to install. While they will save consumers money over time, the best time to install them is when the existing system is failing, and the consumer will need to pay to replace it anyway.  That is the best time to make the switch.  Even then, upfront costs can be a barrier. Fortunately there are both federal tax incentives and rebates under the Inflation Reduction Act or IRA to reduce those upfront costs. In addition you can combine these with state or utility rebates like those offered under the EnergizeCT program for heat pumps and heat pump water heaters, as well as financing like that available from the Green Bank.  


But the cost reduction programs are only part of the solution. The second important part of this is promotion, education, and goal-setting. Without a programmatic approach, we will not move quickly enough to mitigate residential building carbon emissions based on our statutory goals. Connecticut needs to set ambitious installation goals and develop a program to educate consumers and promote heat pump adoption. Maine has recently done that quite successfully having installed a target 100,000 heat pumps in only 3 years – two years ahead of their original 2025 target. Maine has since expanded the goal to an additional 175,000 heat pumps by 2027. 


Based on both the need for national goals and how successful Maine was, In September, a coalition of 25 governors, including Governor Ned Lamont here in Connecticut, committed to quadrupling the installation of heat pumps by 2030. This sets a target of 20 million more homes with heat pumps and 40% of those will be in disadvantaged communities. That is a needed and important national goal, but Connecticut needs to commit to its own rapid share of those installations. 


Now is the time for Connecticut to pass legislation in 2024 to create a heat pump program and goals. The state should set an aggressive target, like Maine has, to establish a public education campaign and make additional state incentives available to speed the adoption. Sierra Club Connecticut has a campaign to promote this legislation in 2024 and we look forward to recruiting help to push this forward. In the meantime, you should start your own homework on how you can switch to a heat pump for your own home heating and cooling, and a heat pump water heater when the time is right, so whether it is cold or hot outside, your home will be affordably comfortable and not contributing to climate and air pollution. 


It’s your move.

Stephen Lewis is our Greater Hartford Group Chair, Political Committee chair and serves on the Legislative Committee of Sierra Club Connecticut.

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