Gov. Mills announces new heat pump goal at Kennebec Valley Community College lab

July 26, 2023
Governor Mills and other officials gather around a heat pump and listen to an instructor at the training lab at Kennebec Valley Community College.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, far right, Maine Community College System President David Daigler, center, and White House national climate advisor Ali Zaidi listen to an explanation of how a heat pump operates during a tour of Kennebec Valley Community College’s heat pump workforce training lab in Fairfield on Friday. Michael Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Maine met its goal to install 100,000 heat pumps two years ahead of schedule. So Gov. Janet Mills is raising the bar, hoping that general state and federal incentives will help Maine lower heating bills and meet its climate goals.

Maine is doubling down on heat pumps to help lower home heating bills and achieve its climate goals.

On Friday, Gov. Janet Mills announced Maine had met one of its key climate action plan goals two years early. In 2019, Mills committed to the installation of 100,000 new heat pumps in Maine by 2025. As of June, Maine had provided rebates for the installation of 104,000 pumps.

Mills said Maine is now a national leader in heat pump installation, and she wants to sustain the momentum. With White House officials looking on in approval, Mills told a small crowd gathered in Fairfield about Maine’s new goal: 175,000 more heat pumps installed by 2027.

“We are setting an example for the nation,” Mills said. “With our new and ambitious goal, we will continue to lead the way when it comes to embracing efficient, climate-friendly technologies that strengthen our economy, protect our environment, and save people money.”

Mills announced the milestone and the new target inside Kennebec Valley Community College’s heat pump service training center to underscore the job creation benefits of meeting the state’s climate goals. The community college system has trained 558 new heat pump techs to date.

Josh Breault, 25, of South China graduated from the program this year. He said he likes working in a green field. He likes helping people, too: Heat pumps help Mainers lower their runaway heating and electricity bills. And at $25 to $30 an hour, even the starting pay is good.

“It’s a good job where I get to do good,” a soft-spoken Breault told a state official Friday. “I feel lucky.”

Installers at the event were thrilled about the new goal, but say they’ll need more workers to reach it.

White House Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi attended the event, saying Maine is leading the way in greening its old buildings and is setting an example that he will be urging other states to use their federal weatherization and energy efficiency incentives to duplicate.

It can be hard to put a specific number on the emissions reductions that Maine’s 104,000 heat pumps have achieved, state officials say. It depends on what kind of heat the pump is replacing (oil, gas or electric) and what is powering the regional energy grid (fossil fuels, wind or solar).

Efficiency Maine put it like this: A typical heat pump user, who uses one pump to offset a third of the heating load of their oil-heated home, is reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2,400 pounds a year because of that pump. That’s the pollution equivalent of three months of average driving.

Heat pumps, which usually run on electricity, essentially move heat in or out of a house, depending on the season. They can be used to heat or cool a home, something that could prove essential in years to come as temperatures climb and the frequency of heat waves increases.

Heat pumps are embraced in other parts of the world, like Japan, but their high upfront costs make them a tough sell. But the International Energy Agency warns that the number of heat pumps worldwide must more than triple by 2030 to meet global net-zero emissions by 2050.

That is starting to change in the United States thanks to $500 million in heat pump funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act. The federal government plans to use this money to subsidize heat pump manufacturing, which should lower prices, and install heat pumps in public buildings.

States are taking notice. Last year, California announced a goal of installing 6 million pumps by 2030.

Now Maine is about to get $36 million in new federal funds to bolster its heat pump plan. That funding will help Maine continue to offer rebates of $1,200, to $2,400 on two units (the federal government offers tax credits of up to $2,600), which Mills said will be essential if Maine wants to hit its new target.

Hannah Pingree, the head of Mills’ Office of Policy, Innovation, and the Future and co-chair of the Maine Climate Council, said the heat pump success story is a definite bright spot in Maine’s effort to achieve its climate goals.

“This is one of the most exciting bright spots of climate action in Maine,” Pingree said. “In part, because it was an ambitious goal and we met it, but also because it is a great example of how climate action can save people money, create jobs and strengthen our economy.”

Families that transition from home heating oil to heat pumps – the average home needs three – would save about $437 a year, based on the cost of oil and electricity in May, according to Efficiency Maine, which oversees heat pump rebates and other state energy efficiency programs.

The average payback period is a little more than six years for a typical middle-income family that uses heat pumps to heat and cool their whole home, according to Efficiency Maine. The pumps will pay for themselves even faster, in about four years, for low-income families.

This success gives Pingree hope that Maine can achieve its other ambitious goals, including those that are not coming as easily, or as quickly, as heat pump installation. Maine is lagging on electric vehicle sales, for example, although that may be due to supply chain problems.

But there are ways to do better even with heat pumps, Pingree said. She would like to see as many of the next 175,000 heat pumps as possible be installed in the homes of low-income Mainers, who often struggle the most with high energy bills, as well as towns, schools, and small businesses.

Maine’s love of heat pumps began with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who saw them as key to reducing home heating bills. He went so far as to install 22 in the Blaine House in 2014. He used rebates to spur the installation of about 45,000 heat pumps during his tenure.

But it was the Mills administration that identified heat pumps as integral to its efforts to meet its climate goals, including the governor’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Maine by 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

Another key difference is how they wanted to power the heat pumps, which run on electricity. LePage wanted to import power from Hydro Quebec to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. Mills wants to add renewables to the mix, such as solar and land and sea-based wind power.

In 2019, Mills signed into law the state’s heat pump target of 100,000, enhanced heat pump rebates through Efficiency Maine, and established a low-income heat pump program at MaineHousing. The plan became a centerpiece of Maine’s climate plan, Maine Won’t Wait.

Since the law was passed, at least 104,000 heat pumps have been installed in Maine. The number is most likely higher, as this number is based on MaineHousing data and the number of Efficiency Maine rebates processed. Households are only compensated for the first two pumps they buy.

Efficiency Maine estimates it is now helping about 25,000 Mainers install heat pumps every year.