• Vt. program could grow to meet heat pump boom
    By
     | April 12,2014
     
    Gordon Dritschilo / Staff File Photo

    Bruce Bentley, an engineer for Green Mountain Power, shows a heat pump the utility says can drastically cut energy costs. GMP started a pilot program for heat pumps last August.

    MONTPELIER — Money from Vermont’s statewide energy efficiency program could be used to install electric heat pumps — and insulation in the houses that receive them — under legislation endorsed Friday by the Vermont Senate.

    The program, Efficiency Vermont, traditionally used money raised through a charge on electric bills to help people install more efficient lighting, appliances and business equipment.

    In 2008, the Legislature expanded the program’s mission to include thermal efficiency — insulation of buildings to save on heat — but required funding for that effort come from sources other than the charge on electric bills.

    Given preliminary approval on a Senate voice vote, the bill would allow some money from the electric charge to be used for weatherization in homes that install a new generation of high-efficiency heat pumps that are increasing in popularity in Vermont.

    Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, launched a pilot program last August to lease heat pumps to 500 customers. GMP touted the pumps as working in temperatures as low as 13 degrees below zero.

    People who install heat pumps are finding they can cut their heating bills in half over the cost of older technologies and energy sources, including oil and propane furnaces and electric baseboard systems, said Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.

    MacDonald, a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, described the legislation to his Senate colleagues Friday.

    The heat pumps, essentially reverse-refrigeration units that extract heat even from cold outside air, use electricity but far less than traditional electric baseboard systems. They can be reversed in the summer to cool indoor spaces.

    Their increasing popularity has caused worry about increasing demand on the electric grid, with consequences possibly including a demand for new power lines and generation, which MacDonald said likely would drive up electric costs.

    One problem is that much cheaper heat might reduce the incentive for people to tighten up their homes against cold weather, he said.

    One of Efficiency Vermont’s goals was to cut Vermont’s electrical usage overall, said George Twigg, the program’s director of public affairs. Using money from the charge on electric bills for weatherization would help pursue that goal by reducing power demand from homeowners using the heat pumps, he said.

    “If you weatherize a house that uses a heat pump, you’re saving electricity,” Twigg said.

    Efficiency Vermont in the past has set up financial incentives for people to install more efficient light bulbs and appliances, as well as guiding them on which products are best, and likely would take the same approach with heat pumps. Twigg said the program does not sell the products it advises people to install.

    In the case of heat pumps, some work much better in Vermont than others, he said. “Not all heat pumps are created equal when it comes to cold climate performance,” he said.

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