Maine is the most heating-oil-dependent state in the country. More than 60 percent of the state’s 550,000 households rely on heating oil as their primary energy source for heat.

But because a little more than half of the electricity generated in Maine already comes from zero-carbon hydropower and wind power — and legislation signed yesterday sets a 100 percent renewable electricity target for 2050 — a rapid shift to electric heat could deliver significant emissions reductions. It should also save households and businesses money.

A bill signed this month by Maine’s new Democratic governor, Janet Mills, seeks to hasten just such a heating sector transition. The legislation calls for more than doubling the number of heat pump installations in Maine to 20,000 annually, and to 100,000 in total, by 2025.

According to Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, the state’s energy efficiency programs administrator, 7,500 heat pumps have been installed on average during each of the past few years, adding up to a total of 35,000 over the past five years.

“Heat pumps reduce Maine’s dependency on fossil fuels, stabilize energy costs, and support energy efficiency jobs which will attract young families and skilled workers to our state,” Gov. Mills said in a statement.

Scaling the heat pump market

Efficiency Maine offers homeowners a $500 rebate for a single ductless mini-split heat pump, or up to $750 for two units. Heat pump rebates are also available for commercial customers.

The list of eligible models includes units from Carrier, Daikin, Fujitsu, LG, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and other large manufacturers. Project receipts tracked by Efficiency Maine peg the average cost of a heat pump installation at $3,900 before rebates.

Efficiency Maine says households can save $300 to $600 annually in avoided fuel costs if they shift from relying on an oil boiler to an electric heat pump for space heating.

Wide-scale adoption of heat pumps would deliver additional savings for Maine residents, according to utility Emera Maine. In testimony before a legislative committee in May, an Emera representative said that because its electric grid is operating below capacity, adding new load via heat pumps would “help reduce the per-unit cost of operating the grid.”

How much? Emera said that for every 1,000 heat pumps added in its territory, it could reduce transmission and distribution rates by $300,000 per year.

Despite the potential for the avoided fuel costs and grid operation savings, Maine officials acknowledge it will be difficult to install 100,000 heat pumps over five years.

In an interview with Greentech Media, Efficiency Maine’s Stoddard outlined how the state plans to hit the 2025 heat pump target.

Efficiency Maine will significantly ramp up its outreach to homeowners and businesses, including testimonials posted to its website from customers who have made it through multiple Maine winters with heat pumps sharing how much they are saving on their heating oil bills.

“That seems to be the most powerful marketing tool we’ve found,” said Stoddard.

Next, the state will continue to focus on training and workforce development. According to Efficiency Maine, 450 small businesses in Maine provide heat pump installation and services.

Efficiency Maine and MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, also plan to focus their efforts on lower-income customers.

“Right now, the $500 inventive works fine for some people but clearly is not sufficient to make heat pumps accessible to folks with lower incomes,” said Stoddard.

MaineHousing will dedicate additional resources to Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program customers, and Efficiency Maine will create a tiered system with more generous heat pump rebates for low- and middle-income Mainers.

Last, contingent on the availability of bond funding — Gov. Mills may call a special session of the legislature devoted to a bonds package later this year — Efficiency Maine could offer microloans to low-income households for the purchase of heat pumps.

Dispelling heat pump misinformation

An ongoing challenge to growing the heat pump market in Maine and other northern jurisdictions is the lingering perception that heat pumps won’t work in extreme cold. New research, including a recent Rocky Mountain Institute report, upends this conventional wisdom.

“It’s an important piece of education that we and everyone else who is interested in promoting heat pumps needs to continue pushing away at,” said Stoddard.

The problem, he added, is much of the existing research on heat pump performance has focused on more temperate regions.

“It is true that older models, and the models that are designed to be in Southern or Mid-Atlantic climates, do not perform as well in the super-cold temperatures we have here. But the ones we’re promoting perform great in those temperatures,” he said.

In Maine homes with a single heat pump, only cold-climate models with a heating season performance factor of 12 or higher qualify for the $500 rebate.

According to Stoddard, manufacturers’ literature, as well as a recent Vermont Public Service Department study, confirms that high-performance cold-climate heat pumps will continue to produce heat down to outside temperatures of -10 or -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

“They do lose some of their efficiency at that level, but they still make heat,” he said.

A busy session for clean energy and climate bills

The heat pump bill is just one in a flood of energy and climate bills passed by Maine lawmakers in 2019.

Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in the November 2018 election. That shift, along with the election of Janet Mills as governor, opened the first window for serious action on clean energy and climate issues in Maine since 2010, when former Republican Governor Paul LePage, an implacable opponent of renewable energy, was elected to his first term.

According to Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, the heat pump initiative aligns within Gov. Mills’ larger push to advance clean energy and emissions reductions during the legislative session that ended last week.

“Thinking strategically about electrification of the heating sector makes a lot of sense from an energy perspective and an emissions perspective, but also from a pocketbook perspective,” Burgess told GTM in the same interview with Michael Stoddard.

The bills already signed by Gov. Mills mark the session as one of the most productive for climate action by any U.S. state legislature thus far in 2019.

“It’s been a very busy session,” said Burgess.

Yesterday, Gov. Mills signed bills to increase Maine’s renewable portfolio standard to 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050; promote the growth of community solar farms and other new distributed generation; and reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and at least 80 percent by 2050.

Last week, Mills signed legislation requiring the state's Public Utilities Commission to approve the contract for the Maine Aqua Ventus floating offshore wind demonstration project.

Other bills signed by the governor will require utilities to compare non-wires alternatives when exploring distribution system upgrades, establish a state energy storage commission, support beneficial electrification in heating and transportation, and create a $2,500 rebate for the purchase of battery electric vehicles.