Electrify Your Heating!

Meg Howard

More and more energy policy makers are starting to adopt the mantra “Electrify Everything.” Last week the New York Times ran an editorial promoting the concept of electrifying everything, including turning to heat pumps for heating and cooling our buildings.

MassCEC has been supporting the electrification of heating through various residential and commercial programs since 2013, after recognizing that over a quarter of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions come from space and water heating. Today MassCEC is taking our next step in promoting heating electrification by launching a whole-home air-source heat pump pilot program. This pilot targets new construction homes and existing homes that heat with natural gas that will use air-source heat pumps as their sole source of heat.

In an op-ed, our CEO, Steve Pike, said that “these whole-home projects will demonstrate the next generation of heating.” Prior to recent advancements in the technology, air-source heat pumps had traditionally not been utilized as a stand-alone home heating source in Massachusetts. However, some contractors and residents are putting in today’s advanced cold-climate heat pumps as their only source of heating in Massachusetts, as well as further north in Vermont and Maine – and they’re working! At MassCEC, we’re optimistic that whole-home air-source heat pumps will become increasingly common in the coming years. In fact, Massachusetts’ 2018 Comprehensive Energy Plan presented scenarios with half a million to three-quarters of a million homes in the state heating with heat pumps by 2030. To help demonstrate that homeowners can avoid the cost of redundant fossil fuel-based systems, we want to gather more data and best practices on homes that use air-source heat pump systems as the sole source of heat.

A Word About Costs

You may have noticed that this pilot program is only open to new construction or existing homes that heat with natural gas. If you live in an existing home with oil, propane, or electric resistance, don’t worry: Mass Save currently has generous incentives for you to install air-source heat pumps as the primary source of heating for your home. The reason that Mass Save does not currently offer a similar level of rebates for natural gas customers is that at current natural gas and electricity prices, most households would pay more to heat with air-source heat pumps. See this chart created by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources for an estimate of how much it would cost to heat an average home with different fuels at last winter’s prices. We know that means that this whole-home pilot won’t be for everyone. However, we also know that some customers with natural gas heating are already moving forward with whole-home air-source heat pump systems to tackle climate change or improve the comfort of their home, and we want to support these projects and learn from them.

For new construction, the cost equation changes because the builder can avoid the cost of the natural gas connection to the home and may save money by having the air-source heat pump as the home’s heating and cooling system. Plus, new construction homes are more energy efficient and should have lower heating loads regardless of their heating source.  For new construction homes, we think it also makes sense to require that the homes have no fossil fuel appliances, which means that the builder will need to find other solutions for cooking and domestic hot water. We know that there are a variety of solutions are out there, and we’re excited to get more information on what kinds of options builders select.

Sharing Knowledge from the Pilot Program

One thing I’m excited about for this pilot is our “Ask an Expert” option. Installers who are facing a design challenge for a whole-home system can submit their question to ashp@masscec.com. MassCEC will engage our technical consultant to answer as many of these questions as possible, and we’re planning to take the questions and answers and turn them into guidance for whole-home systems.

Another new thing that we’re trying out with the pilot is supporting air-to-water heat pumps. These heat pumps heat up a fluid to provide space heating through hydronic distribution (like radiators or baseboards). This year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized air-to-water heat pumps with the 2019 ENERGY STAR® Emerging Technology Award. This technology is relatively new to the American market, but it is more common in Europe and China. We’re excited to see what applications there might be in Massachusetts.

Our hope is to share the results of the pilot program as it is in progress. To that end, we’re planning to do monthly blog updates with program information and interesting case studies. In the meantime, please reach out to me if you have any questions, comments, or ideas.