Heat Pumps – The Market in the Northeast Heats Up in Two Ways

Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 2/21/2023

“The battle has just begun. Stay tuned.”

What’s that about? The 2024 election? Spy balloons? Vaccines? Heck no, it’s about how we choose to heat our homes. That statement comes from a consultant with the National Oilheat Research Alliance.

There is a battle brewing over the growing heat pump market and the resulting challenge it presents to heating oil, natural gas, and propane dealers. And the battle is starting to get heated.

When “cold climate” heat pumps were introduced in Maine several years ago, many fuel oil and propane dealers decided to also offer heat pumps to their customers. But as the market matured, things changed and most heat pumps are now sold and installed by firms specializing in heat pumps, and by installers of solar PV systems. 

Several national and local news outlets are reporting that fossil fuel industry groups have organized to convince homeowners that it is a mistake to expect heat pumps to perform well in cold climates. They term their efforts as “educational campaigns.” Heat pump promoters prefer to label them as “disinformation campaigns.”

The current battleground for the conflict is Maine. The “Fuel Your Love” promotional campaign is featured by the home heating website Maine Energy Facts: https://www.maineenergyfacts.com. The website and the campaign are financed by the Maine Energy Marketers Association. The Fuel Your Love campaign, using Valentine’s Day as a backdrop provides free heating oil to Maine residents that are nominated by visitors to the website. The recipients of the free oil are given promotional materials directing them to the Maine Energy Facts website.

Zondits would not argue the generosity of that effort. And, the Maine Energy Facts website includes some useful information. But it also includes several misleading claims about fossil fuels, heat pumps, and electrification, including:

  • “Still, heat pumps are simply not ideal for climates like ours.”
  • “In addition, keep in mind that the outside cabinet of air-source heat pumps requires attention. You have to continually check to ensure nothing blocks free airflow.”
  • “Heat pumps include some little-known drawbacks that are important to factor in if you’re considering having one installed in your home. Small wall-mounted cassettes within a heat pump system deliver reduced temperature uniformity in the home.”
  • “It’s also important to keep in mind that heat pump backup service can lead to strong efficiency degradation.”

The website also argues that heat pumps are not a “greener” option:

  • “Simply put, by 2050, oil heat will have a carbon footprint of zero” This refers to a goal that has been established by the industry to transition to biofuels. They point to the current progress toward that goal with the current availability of Bioheat® fuel and state that a 100% biofuel termed EL100 will be available by 2023. Using the search methodology recommended by the site, Zondits found Bioheat® fuel with a maximum 20% biofuel content available at two Maine dealers serving only the southern coastal region. The products appear to enjoy more availability in Southern New England. EL100 is in the research and development stage with the anticipation that it will be blended with fossil fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) states that many technical hurdles must be overcome before 100% biofuels are commercially viable.
  • “Heat pumps sometimes have a reputation for being a green home heating option. It’s important to note, however, that the electricity required to effectively run a heat pump is typically generated by the burning of fossil fuels, rendering them no greener than the furnace in your basement.”

It’s generous to call that last statement misleading, as according to the EIA, over 70% of Maine’s electricity is generated by renewable energy sources. Only a small fraction is generated with fuel oil which is what is burned in the majority of Maine’s residential furnaces and boilers. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=ME#tabs-4

The Bioheat® website My Biofuels states in their FAQ. “Unlike other renewable energy options, Bioheat® fuel is helping to cut carbon emissions right now.” https://mybioheat.com/facts/bioheat-faqs/

The Energy and Policy Institute, https://www.energyandpolicy.org a self-described energy industry watchdog group has obtained several National Oilheat Research Alliance documents through a public records request.  The documents, shared with The Washington Post and other news outlets detail efforts by the fossil fuel home heating industry to discredit heat pumps and electrification.

The Washington Post has also reported that the Propane Education and Research Council, trains installers to dissuade customers from switching to electrical appliances. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/02/07/maine-gas-industry-heat-pumps/

In rural areas throughout New England and elsewhere, where natural gas is not typically available, propane is popular for home heating, water heating, and cooking.

According to a Maine Public Radio broadcast on February 13, despite the efforts of the fuel industry, the heat pump industry is booming, and owners are enthusiastic about their performance. During a recent cold snap with temperatures well below zero throughout the entire state, Efficiency Maine, the quasi-governmental organization that administers the state’s efficiency and renewable energy programs, reported that homeowners that are relying 100% on heat pumps for space heating remained positive about their comfort levels. And many Maine residents are reporting significant financial savings after switching from oil heat to heat pumps. They also note that most homeowners electing to install heat pumps retain a backup heat source whether it be oil, gas, or wood heat.

One can view both the acceptance of heat pumps for cold climates and the development of biofuels as positives for consumers and the environment. Misleading statements presented as facts do not serve either.

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