Reaching the goals of the Massachusetts clean energy and climate bill passed this summer and Boston’s Carbon Free Boston plan will require a massive shift from heating our homes with gas and oil to electric heat pumps that do both heating and cooling.
A heat pump takes heat from outside and moves it into your home in the winter and takes heat from inside in hot weather and moves it outside.
Unlike furnaces, heat pumps themselves don’t generate carbon dioxide, though a utility’s method of producing the electricity used to power them (and other household devices) may well involve burning fossil fuels. However, since heat pumps are extremely efficient, they are considered an important step in the overall reduction of greenhouse gases.
But we aren’t installing enough of them.
We need to transition an additional half-million Massachusetts homes to heat pumps by 2030 to meet the state’s climate targets. In a recently published Boston Foundation report that assesses Boston’s climate action, decarbonization researcher Michael Walsh and I found that both Boston and Massachusetts are considerably behind on their heat pump installation goals. And for the most part, the heat pumps installed did not completely eliminate fossil fuels in the home because people used gas or oil for other purposes such as hot water or cooking.
So why is adoption so slow?
For starters, town regulations are often confusing and difficult to navigate. Further, many local contractors are not comfortable designing a home-heating system that relies primarily on heat pumps. Meanwhile, we aren’t training enough contractors in this field.
My own experience reveals how these problems play out. My husband and I decided to replace an antiquated air conditioner and baseboard electric heat on one floor with a heat pump. I started going down the list of qualified providers assembled by Mass Save. Of the seven I called or e-mailed, only two replied.
After a home visit to evaluate our needs, the first gave us a shocking $19,000 estimate (keep in mind this was only for one floor). I asked why the estimate was so high when the equipment itself only cost $4,000. No response. After repeated attempts to follow-up, I received a voice mail telling me that the company owner had determined he would need a crane to get the unit on the roof, so the cost would be “3 to 4 times more than the proposal.” My conclusion: For whatever reason, he didn’t want to install the system.
I finally found a second contractor to provide an estimate. Based on our phone call, he recommended a totally different system than the first contractor. But he didn’t show up at the scheduled time for a more precise review. We rescheduled — same thing.
After four months of searching, I found a company that will install the system for $12,000. But because the ideal unit had been on back order for months, we had to opt for an alternative. That highlights another problem: Currently, there is almost no manufacturing of heat pumps in the United States.
Further, the permitting process is often time consuming for contractors, as each city and town has its own requirements. Cambridge, for example, has noise ordinances for the condensing units, which are not limited to the equipment itself. If the surrounding structures amplify the sound above the legal level, the contractor is responsible for rectifying it.
With all the estimates and communications that go into correctly designing a system that works for a specific home, the various city permitting requirements, Mass Save’s rebate rules, and the difficulty of obtaining the agreed-upon equipment, it’s no wonder so many contractors choose not to install heat pumps.
Add to these problems a shortage of workers with the necessary installation expertise. The Department of Energy is exploring additional investment in workforce development for heat pump manufacturing and installation. Closer to home, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is investing in training programs to bring underrepresented populations into the clean energy trades, including heat pump installation.
These investments will help, but at the state and local level, we need to build more green technology career-ladder programs in our high schools, community colleges, and universities to develop the workforce.
Finally, we need to rethink the rebates. I will have to pay upfront for my $12,000 system to get the $2,500 rebate from Mass Save. That would be prohibitive for many people. There, the increased federal rebates will help somewhat.
Heat pump technology is essential to meeting state and city carbon-reduction goals and for lowering consumer costs.
But all levels of government need to get serious about removing obstacles.
Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University and the author of “Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change.”