Mass Save can do more to push the process
Thank you, Sabrina Shankman, for highlighting the huge gap between aspiration and action on the climate crisis in Massachusetts (“A climate fix, slipping out of our grasp: Heat pumps could replace fossil fuels in homes, but state is slow to convert,” Page A1, Aug. 22).
To solve this problem, Mass Save needs to do two things: First, continue to push weatherization. It works in every house and building to immediately reduce carbon emissions and energy costs. Then, when one does go electric, installation costs and energy bills are much lower.
Second, make heat pump conversions easier by providing generous incentives when one’s boiler or furnace fails, and then heavily promote this program through contractors who are the first point of contact when a home’s old system breaks down. That’s when people have to buy a replacement heating system, so we should make it the easy or default choice at that time.
The writer is the CEO at Embue, a Massachusetts company that makes apartment buildings run more efficiently.
Kudos to Sabrina Shankman for pointing out the need to electrify heating and to the shortcomings of the Mass Save program in that regard.
But electrifying leaky and inefficient homes is a waste of resources and money. Even 100 percent renewable electricity is not carbon free: A lot of fossil fuels are used in manufacturing and transporting wind turbines and solar panels, and a great deal of pressure will be put on the electric grid if we all electrify.
Programs advocating for electrification of heating must therefore equally advocate for weatherization of homes. That is often not the case, as programs define their missions very narrowly. In our own home, by insulating the attic, walls, and basement, with Mass Save covering between 75 percent and 90 percent of the cost, we reduced our demand for heating by almost 40 percent. Now we are ready to install heat pumps.
The writer is chair of the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy.
Many caveats and pitfalls to making this switch
The Globe should be commended for taking on a complex, technical topic like heat pumps and their implications for climate change. But there are nuances to this topic that need to be taken into account.
Ultimately, burning fossil fuels in homes for heat needs to be replaced by electricity and heat pumps. However, this seems to assume that electricity is generated using renewable resources. Using more electricity in New England means burning more natural gas to create that electricity. We are years, if not decades, from switching to electricity that does not result in the consumption of natural gas.
There is no immediate imperative to switch to heat pumps. Pulling out a heating system prematurely has minimal effect on greenhouse gas emission and is virtually always a bad economic choice for consumers. Consumers should first invest in insulation and similar measures.
Home heating systems are a long-term investment. We should be promoting the use of heat pumps in all new homes and at any time someone decides to replace a heating system. The challenge is the 25 percent or so of homes in New England that have radiators and no duct work. There is, at the moment, no widely available heat pump system that can substitute for a boiler in a house that continues to use radiators. Retrofitting these homes to accommodate heat pumps results in the more than $21,000 in costs mentioned in Sabrina Shankman’s article, an amount that will rarely pay for itself in energy cost savings.
Reengineering a home heating system is a complex task, one where it is easy to make a mistake leading to frozen pipes or other serious consequences. The Globe would have been much better off discussing alternatives, hybrid systems, and other ways that homeowners can contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.
The writer is a consultant who represents the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, the trade association of furnace, boiler, and heat pump manufacturers, on US Department of Energy efficiency standards. He is also a commissioner of the Block Island Utility District, the electric utility on Block Island. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of either organization.
From electric car to solar panels to heat pumps, they’re making it work
As an energy efficiency proponent, owner of an all-electric net-zero-energy home, and a former staff member of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, I appreciated Sabrina Shankman’s story about heat pumps.
My husband, Tom, and I built our modular, super-insulated BrightBuilt Home in 2014 (such homes were featured on the front of Sunday’s Address section), and it is heated and cooled primarily with Mitsubishi air-source heat pumps rated for New England winters. We love the comfort, efficiency, and cost savings, paired with our SunBug solar panels that pay us about $2,000 a year in renewable energy credits. Our National Grid electric bills are enviable — even with charging our Chevy Volt.
But after nearly seven years in the home and minimal maintenance on the heat pumps, this summer it was time for a tuneup. A few of the room units seemed to struggle to maintain temperature. It turns out some of these air handlers were still clogged with construction debris, and others had a buildup of dust, even the beginnings of mold.
Some important lessons learned:
▪ Clean the air filters monthly to clear out dust and allow maximum airflow.
▪ At the end of cooling season, run a factory-recommended cycle to dry out the air handlers so condensation doesn’t breed mold.
▪ Schedule annual service to keep the system running optimally.
▪ Especially in heating season, “set it and forget it” at a consistent temperature for best performance.
Nearly any home can be a good candidate for air source heat pumps. When paired with good insulation, proper indoor air quality measures, and, even better, solar panels, going electric is a win-win for home occupants and the climate.
Natalie Hildt Treat
The writer served as NEEP’s public policy outreach manager for nearly eight years, advocating for building efficiency programs across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Operating costs of a new system can be daunting
What is old is new again. Back in the 1960s, homeowners were lured with lower electrical rates if they ultra-insulated their home and installed electric heat. This worked for a time until it was deemed that offering a discount for high-use electric-heated homes was not fair to other consumers. This caused these homeowners to be stuck with homes that they could not afford to heat. These homes tended to be either sold at a loss after a potential buyer asked to review the electric bills or converted to fossil fuel heating systems, requiring a large investment.
Your article failed to note that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have among the highest electric rates in the country — ranked third and second, respectively. Are the power generating companies willing to offer a guaranteed discount for homeowners willing to make the investments in heat pumps?
I would have liked this article to compare the operating costs of these new modern cold-climate heat pumps, which can function in temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees, to standard fossil fuel heating systems. It’s not enough to simply say that they are becoming more efficient. I am not surprised that only 461 homes were converted to heat pumps on a plan to convert 100,000 homes.
Many homeowners would be willing to accept little financial payback by investing in heat pumps for the sake of the “climate fix” so long as the ongoing operating costs would be at least equal to their current fossil fuel heating systems.
There’s another solution to consider
Sabrina Shankman’s front-page story detailed some of the questions surrounding the notion that electric heat pumps are a welcome and cost-effective solution to combating climate change in Massachusetts.
Her report detailed the high costs associated with electric heat pumps, their performance deficiencies, and the failure of state energy officials and the utility-controlled Mass Save program to persuade homeowners and heating contractors to join the movement to “electrify” 1 million fossil-fueled homes by 2030. With a paltry 461 homes making the switch last year, the state needs to reassess its climate change strategy.
The heating oil industry has a proven, drop-in solution that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions now in Massachusetts: renewable biofuels blended with heating oil. The greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels are 66 percent to 82 percent less than emissions from traditional heating oil. Using biofuels requires no heating system modifications and costs about the same as regular heating oil.
The state’s heavy reliance on heat pump technology while establishing a totally renewable electric grid is a laudable but challenging goal, and decades away. Meanwhile, contrary to what some believe, energy officials here should embrace the accelerated use of liquid biofuels as a pathway for immediate reductions in carbon emissions.
Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association