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Pump it up

Do Heat Pumps Work in Cold Climates? Maine Says Yes!

Daren Wang
September 11, 2023

Do Heat Pumps Work in Cold Climates? Maine Says Yes!

As the scorching heat and other weather extremes of the summer of 2023 end, many homeowners are asking themselves what they can do to help address the climate change that has become undeniable this year. Switching to an EV, going solar, and reducing the amount of meat in our diets are all things we can do to make a big impact on our own carbon footprint. Another is looking at how we heat our homes. Nearly every model of a net-zero energy economy includes converting most of our homes from gas or electric-powered furnaces to electric heat pumps.

But everyone knows that heat pumps are only good in warm-weather climates and can’t keep a Northern home warm when it gets really cold. But what if that’s not true? What if heat pumps are a great solution for cold weather?

In a surprising development, the state of Maine, known for enduring some of the most frigid winters in the nation, has not only embraced heat pumps but is intensifying its commitment to this clean-heating technology. In 2019, as part of its climate strategy, Maine set an ambitious target to install 100,000 heat pumps by 2025. But this past August, Governor Janet Mills announced that the state had achieved its goal two years ahead of schedule, with over 104,000 heat pumps installed in homes and businesses. As a result, Maine is now setting a new objective: the installation of an additional 175,000 heat pumps by 2027.

Governor Mills expressed pride in Maine's achievement, stating, "We are setting an example for the nation. Our transition to heat pumps is creating good-paying jobs, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and lowering costs for Maine families, all while enhancing their home comfort – a significant achievement for our state."

What is a heat pump?

Heat pumps are essentially reversible air conditioners. They are remarkably efficient, using two to four times less energy than traditional gas furnaces. It is expected that they will play a pivotal role in decarbonizing home heating, with a recent analysis by climate think tank Rocky Mountain Institute indicating that heat pumps will generate a fraction of the emissions produced by gas furnaces over their lifespan.

In fact, on average, the reduced carbon emissions that result from a modern heat pump will completely offset the carbon impact of its manufacturing process within thirteen months of installation.

Despite their efficiency, a common misconception that heat pumps are ineffective in cold climates has hindered their adoption. Maine's success with this technology provides compelling evidence that heat pumps can revolutionize heating systems in areas with harsh winters, not just in warmer regions.

This accomplishment is particularly crucial in the context of the United States' goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To stay on track, it's estimated that contractors will need to install 5.4 million heat-pump systems across the country by 2027, according to electrification advocacy nonprofit Rewiring America. Achieving this target may be supported by incentives like those in the Inflation Reduction Act, but the reliability of heat pumps is crucial for their widespread acceptance.

More than just homes

Maine's new target involves the installation of heat pumps in thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of homes, with the assistance of Efficiency Maine, which administers heat pump rebates. Notably, eligible families can receive substantial rebates for high-efficiency heat pump units from manufacturers such as American Standard, Daikin, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi Electric, and Samsung.

Furthermore, the Inflation Reduction Act will inject $72 million in rebates into Maine's efforts to enhance energy efficiency, enabling homeowners to weatherize their homes and adopt efficient electric equipment alongside heat pumps.

The success of heat pumps in one of the coldest states in the US is evidence that they are ready to become a mainstream alternative to the fossil-fuel systems that have been in use for a century. Maine's challenging weather conditions, including a severe cold snap this past February, have demonstrated the reliability of heat pumps, with users reporting comfort even in temperatures plummeting below -60°F.

One of the biggest challenges to heat pump use is a lack of understanding at local HVAC servicing companies. Salespeople tend to stick with products they’re familiar with, and nationwide, fewer installers have trained in heat pump equipment. To tackle that problem, Maine added a robust heat pump workforce training program. The Maine Community College System has trained over 550 heat pump technicians to date and even opened a new training lab in early 2021.

“You have to be impressed with what Maine's community of heat pump installers have accomplished in our state," said Michael Stoddard, Executive Director of Efficiency Maine. "Their adept marketing and skilled installations make them the perfect partners for the incentive programs that the Governor and Legislature have funded through Efficiency Maine's programs, and together we are changing how Mainers heat and cool their buildings."

“We know that when a lower-income home can add a heat pump, it helps reduce overall heating and cooling costs and trims our dependence on carbon-emitting fuels. It helps our planet and enhances a home’s affordability and a heating system’s reliability, all at the same time,” said Erik Jorgensen, Senior Director of Communications and Government Relations at MaineHousing.

Although much of the heat pump deployment has been focused on the residential market, schools, businesses, and municipal buildings are also part of the push. Under Governor Mills, Maine has invested $50 million in heat pump and weatherization programs for those buildings throughout the state.

The push to electrify Maine’s heating and cooling systems is only part of a larger effort to decarbonize its energy infrastructure. In order to reap the full benefits of shifting the state’s heating to the electric grid, upstream generation needs to continue to transition to renewable, clean energy. With one of the most ambitious schedules of any of the fifty states, Maine set a goal of 80% renewable electricity use by 2030.

Maine's success with heat pumps serves as a model for the broader adoption of this technology across the United States, aiding in the transition to cleaner and more efficient heating systems in the pursuit of a sustainable future.

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