Why Mainers Are Falling Hard for Heat Pumps

Why Mainers Are Falling Hard for Heat Pumps

It may have been a warmer than usual winter in Maine, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t gotten mighty cold. In mid-January in Farmingdale, a town outside Augusta where Kaylie McLaughlin lives, the temperature dipped to 6 degrees Fahrenheit. “The kind of cold that hurts,” she said.

But this winter, Ms. McLaughlin’s bungalow is toasty, thanks to two heat pumps she installed to replace her oil furnace. “I’m just so comfortable,” said Ms. McLaughlin, a pharmaceutical sales representative. She’s also saving money, no longer paying $400 every four weeks for an oil delivery.

Unlike a space heater, a heat pump extracts heat from outside air, even in subzero temperatures, and then runs it through a compressor, which makes it even hotter, before pumping it indoors. In the summer, it can operate in reverse, pulling heat from inside a building and pumping it outside, cooling the indoor spaces.

In 2023 heat pumps outsold gas furnaces in the United States for the second year running, a climate win. Electrical heat pumps are the cheapest and most energy efficient ways to heat and cool homes, and they do not emit the carbon pollution that is overheating the planet.

No state has adopted them faster than Maine.

That northeastern place of hardy types and snowbound winters is quickly going electric, installing electric heat pumps three times faster than the national average, according to Rewiring America, a nonprofit that promotes widespread electrical adoption. Last September, Maine met its goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps in households two years ahead of schedule, and is aiming to install another 175,000 by 2027.

Maine’s rapid adoption is being spurred by a combination of state rebates on top of federal incentives and a new cadre of vendors and installers, as well as mounting frustrations over the high cost of heating oil.

The $12,000 price tag for Ms. McLaughlin’s heat pumps was cut in half by state rebates, and she paid for the rest with low-interest financing. In the coldest months, her loan repayment and electricity bill was the same as her old oil bill, but she’s already saved $100 a month during the shoulder season, and gotten a $2,000 federal tax credit. Plus the heat is reliable, she said, unlike her rickety old oil furnace, which forced her to spend much of the winter bundled up indoors. And though she sets the pumps at 66 degrees, she said it feels toastier because the heat is more evenly spread throughout her house.

It’s a big conversion for a state where over half the households burned oil for heat in 2022, the highest percentage in the country.

The change marks a cultural shift, helped when then-governor Paul LePage, a conservative Republican, installed heat pumps a decade ago at both his official residence and waterfront home. Word of mouth spread among families, neighbors and even church communities where new heat pumps kept congregants warm. Even in frigid temperatures, they told each other, even in Maine, heat pumps worked.

“Ten years ago, they weren’t really popular,” said Josh Tucker, of Valley Home Services, a family-owned heating company outside of Bangor. “No one really knew what they were.” He first installed heat pumps in his sister’s new home in 2014, over the objections of her building contractor who, Mr. Tucker said, “was against it big time.”

“He thought she was going to freeze to death unless she had a furnace or boiler,” he said. She didn’t, and uses the same heat pumps today.

The new technology was embraced especially quickly in one northern Maine community after Mr. Tucker’s father installed heat pumps at a Methodist church there. The Tucker family still sells heating oil and propane, but less and less. Its heat pump business, meanwhile, grew from installing two to three units a week to 3,000 last year, a nearly 20-fold increase.

“We’ve done TV ads, advertising on social media, but the big one’s always been word of mouth and that’s how it exploded,” Mr. Tucker said.

According to Efficiency Maine, an independent agency that runs energy efficiency programs, replacing heating oil and propane with heat pumps saves a household over a thousand dollars a year.

They can also make a dent in the pollution that is driving climate change. By one calculation, if every single family home in the United States adopted heat pumps, annual greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 160 million metric tons, the same as taking 32 million cars off the road.

Heat pumps perform somewhat of a magic trick. They can take one unit of energy input to yield three to four units of heat.

Since nothing is burned, nearby air quality improves. Because heat pumps don’t use oil or propane, there are no fuel leaks. Heat pumps run on electricity and in Maine, much of that electricity comes from wind and other clean sources. In 2022, 64 percent of electricity generated in Maine came from renewable energy.

In a twist, the state’s fast adoption of electric heat pumps is related to its historic reliance on oil and propane for heat. Maine is rural and sparsely populated, and gas utilities concluded it wasn’t worthwhile to lay distribution lines in many areas of the state, according to Michael Stoddard, the executive director of Efficiency Maine. Instead of getting heating fuel from a utility, Mainers generally have to pick up the phone to arrange a delivery when they’re running low.

This was one of the reasons Michelle Whitmore, 60, a former monogrammer at L.L. Bean, signed up for a pilot program that installed a free heat pump in her mobile home two years ago. Ms. Whitmore is legally blind, and relied on a neighbor to read her fuel gauge. She was also tired of having to shovel snow so that fuel delivery workers could reach her oil tank.

“I figured I couldn’t be any colder with the heat pump than I was with my furnace,” she said. Now, she just has to hit a switch. The heating and cooling is also more consistent, she said, and though her electricity bills went up she’s still saving $200 to $300 a year.

There has been pushback from the oil and gas industry, which has backed campaigns fighting electrification and questioning the efficacy of heat pumps in the bitter cold. “Heat pumps have gotten thrown into the culture war of electrification versus staying with fossil fuels,” said Christopher Kessler, a state representative from South Portland who works as an energy auditor. Mr. Kessler said some home heating contractors who sell both oil and heat pumps still erroneously claim that heat pumps can’t be used as a primary heating source.

Mr. Stoddard of Efficiency Maine said while many Mainers use heat pumps in tandem with oil and gas heating systems, the hybrid approach reduces the effectiveness of the heat pump. His agency recently changed its program so only households that fully convert to heat pumps get state rebates. People can still keep fossil fuel heating systems but only as a backup or for household hot water, he said.

Smokey Bunn said he and his family had been paying up to $600 a month for oil, as well as going through three tons of wood pellets for their heating stove each winter. “It works fantastic,” he said, of the family’s new heat pumps. “People that get them rave.”

The household’s biggest fans, he said, might be the family’s two dogs, Ivan and Nahla, who regularly plant themselves on the couch in front of the system. “It pushes hot air onto them,” he said. “They love it.”

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