I undertook my recent constituent surveys about heat pumps because I was struggling to understand why heat pump adoption rates are so low. The survey responses tend to confirm that raising adoption rates will be difficult and expensive.
Many believe that the current generous incentives offered by Mass Save will not suffice to drive heat pump adoptions at a pace sufficient to accomplish our stated climate goals. This is a consensus conclusion of the recent Commission on Clean Heat. It is also the central judgment behind the low target set by the Secretary of Environmental Affairs for emissions reductions through the Mass Save program.
The projections of low heat pump adoption rates come partly from historical experience and partly from “potential studies.” Mass Save hires consultants who use proprietary models to estimate potential uptake of proposed incentives. Recent potential studies suggest negligible heat pump incentive uptake for homes heated with gas (the majority of homes) and low single-digit rates of annual uptake for homes heated with oil.
The consultants do not expose the inner logic of their models, so I wanted to see if constituents’ feelings and experiences were consistent with the model projections.
Quantitative Survey Results
The full quantitative results of the survey appear here. This summary table tells much of the story:
Small Building Homeowner Follow-up Table 7 (N=692): Summary of likelihood to convert results
|Combined affordability and other likelihood to convert factors||% of sample|
|1. Not interested in heat pumps||10%|
|2. Will convert only if cost-effective based on both operating and capital costs||34%|
|3. Will convert only if net upfront cost under $10,000||33%|
|4. Unsure how much they can afford||5%|
|5. Can afford net over $10K, but need minisplits and not OK or unsure about them||5%|
|6. Can afford net over $10K, and have vents or are OK with minisplits, but will not consider replacing before failure of current system||1%|
|7. Can afford net between $10K and $30K, and have vents or are OK with minisplits and will consider replacing before failure of current system||6%|
|8. Can afford net up to $50K, and have vents or are OK with minisplits and will consider replacing before failure of current system||5%|
|9. All homeowners in follow up affordability survey (N=692)||100%|
We know that whole home heat pump conversions (where fossil fuel back up is eliminated) cost an average of $21,000 per housing unit, much more than a replacement oil or gas burner. That cost varies widely and does not include weatherization and other costs which may or may not be covered by Mass Save. We also know that, under current market conditions, heat pumps increase annual heating cost for homes heated with gas and may or may not offer savings for homes heated with oil. So, even with a $10,000 incentive, heat pumps are only likely to be adopted by people who are motivated to cut carbon emissions and have considerable discretionary resources — in other words the 11% of the survey respondents in lines 7 and 8 of the table above.
Qualitative Survey Results
When one looks at the over 150 qualitative comments offered on the survey, one starts to appreciate why very few will convert among the 89% in lines 1 through 6 of the table, and why only a disappointing fraction will convert among the best resourced and most highly motivated 11% in lines 7 and 8 of the table.
- Early heat pumps performed poorly in New England winters. Even though new-generation, cold-climate heat pumps perform robustly in New England winters, the heat pump industry still faces skepticism among many homeowners and contractors. (For more information about heat pumps and heat pump installation support, visit this collection of links. )
- The process of implementing heat pumps is difficult for homeowners. It requires a substantial investment of time to learn the vocabulary, sort through the options, negotiate with and manage contractors, and navigate the incentive bureaucracy. (Confirming the reports of constituents, the MassCEC recently estimated a conversion might require 50 to 100 hours of homeowner effort given the limited available coaching resources for homeowners.)
- While there are many inspiring success stories, people often find themselves struggling with complex, partial, and imperfect solutions. Sometimes, without spending large sums on deep home renovations, the design alternatives may be messy and unattractive.
- Some survey respondents backed away after studying heat pumps, and chose to go with efficient gas or oil burners. Many older homes do not have any heating or cooling ducts (more than half lacked ducts in our sample) so they need to install minisplit room units. But it may not be feasible to install minisplit units in all the rooms that need them.
- Many, especially seniors, do not expect to be in their home for the life of a heat pump and are not prepared to make the necessary investment to convert.
- Some are attached to older, less insulated homes with more outdoor air exchange. Similarly, of radiators, “love putting my snowy mittens and hats on the toasty radiator after shoveling!” – the old technology does have appeal.
- The whole conversation can be exhausting: “We are very aware of our environmental impact, and do as much as we can to minimize it, and yes, there is always more to do – but we can’t afford (financially and psychologically) to continue questioning and justifying every single thing that we do.”
- For some, it’s hard to feel good about investing in carbon reduction when others are not doing their part – “throwing cash at money-losing improvements for my own house while the rest of society allows the planet to burn does not make sense.”
- Even among people who are resolute about doing their part to address climate change, fair questions about heat pump conversion can be raised:
- The sources of our electric power are not all green. Several wondered about whether this means heat pumps will not save carbon. Heat pumps are efficient enough to save carbon, even when they are entirely served with electricity generated by natural gas. Additionally, over the lifetime of the pump, the plan is that the grid will become greener, so the carbon savings will grow. See this thread. But to the extent winter gas shortages force electric generators to burn oil, the near-term marginal carbon effectiveness of heat pumps may become a close call.
- Some expressed concern about rising electric rates and grid reliability, especially as we add more heat pumps and electric vehicles. These are valid concerns. We have ambitious plans for the electrical system, but whether those will work out well is another conversation.
- Some pointed out that manufacturing of heat pumps generates carbon. Here is an article on carbon embodied in heat pumps. This article suggests (in section 3.2.2) about 1.5 metric tons embodied in a medium sized heat pump. There are many relevant variables, but this is on the scale of one year worth of likely carbon savings from a conversion. So, yes, embodied carbon is significant and we should take a full life cycle perspective, but that computation only slightly reduces the motivation to convert.
- Finally, it is undeniable that there are other ways to cut carbon that are less expensive, like reducing vacation travel.
- Those who live in larger buildings, whether as renters or as owners, face a complex group decision-making process and, while they may be eager to cut building carbon emissions, they often do not see a practical path forward.
The constituents who care to subscribe to my email list are, on average as compared to the rest of the state, more progressive and more concerned about climate change. The half of my emailing list that chose to respond to the recent survey likely skews further in that direction. Even within this very pro-climate-action sample, it is reasonable to expect that only a low single digit percentage will choose to convert to heat pumps in any given year. The survey results offer no reason to doubt the discouraging statewide potential studies on which Mass Save’s plans are based.
So, it appears that, if we want to deliver on our climate goals, we cannot evade the dilemmas raised by the Commission on Clean Heat report:
- how much to increase upfront incentives for heat pump conversions;
- how to hold down electric bills for people who convert;
- how to fund those increased incentives and electric bill subsidies;
- how to make it much easier for homeowners and other decision-makers to work through the process.
The heat pump narrative rests on the premise that our power generation sources will soon be much greener. We also need to assure that we are delivering on that vision.
Why are there not incentives for installing solar panels along with incentives for switching to electrics (heat pumps, induction stoves, tankless water heaters, etc)? I think many more folks who are concerned about the environment would go 100% electric if there were incentives for solar panels as well. Is there any downside to solar? I suppose in NE we could not reply 100% on solar, because we do have short days in the winter, more cloudy days, etc. But, I do think more people would consider it if we could rely on solar to cut some of the cost. There were incentives for a while, but my family could not afford to put in solar. Now, we might be able to, but it seems the incentives for solar panels has gone away. I had Mass Saves come out and they told me there are no incentives for solar panels…
Kate, whether tax credits or not, we all pay for it through taxes.
It’s not free though a lot of politicians (ahem) make one think it is.
That is, “someone else” pays, like the new tax on incomes above 1$ million.
“Tax someone else but not poor little me.”
Also, solar panels have the life span of 15-20 years – but they cannot be recycled or disposed of safely. What happens with millions of spent solar panels? Trashing the planet is worse than Co2 emissions. Co2 emissions can be reduced and reversed with wide-scale forestation and population reduction. The permanent trash we leave behind is a crime against all future generations of people and animals.
Even with forestation, if we continue to rely on fossil fuels, the consequences (climate impacts) will be far worse than the negatives from solar, fully acknowledging that every technology has its downside. But the solar panel recycling problem is economic, not technical, and there’s hope on this front. https://www.rystadenergy.com/news/reduce-reuse-solar-pv-recycling-market-to-be-worth-2-7-billion-by-2030
Anytime you have a technology that allows people to separate from the grid, like solar, there will be less support because our economy depends on us being on the grid and making a bunch of shareholders rich who own whatever corporation is running it. Also, I have not heard from people who have had solar that it only lasts 15-20 years. They last much longer than that.
Another issue is that, because of our centralized grid, when more people who can afford to add solar get off the grid, it makes electricity more expensive for those who cannot afford it.
The grid is the problem.
I am told that currently for (at least some) electric cars the cost of electricity exceeds the comparable cost of gasoline.
And one does not always know where the electricity comes from. That, is green or not.
Reservations are also being expressed about too many people charging their electric cars at night (to go to work the next day) and during heat waves.
“And one does not always know where the electricity comes from. That, is green or not.”
There is a way to see where the electricity in the region comes from. I like to watch it like some might the sports scores or the shipping news:
Both these links are misleading on solar in that they don’t show behind the meter solar (solar panels delivering direct to homes or businesses instead of solar fields connect to the grid). Oddly, in our region behind the meter solar is near on an order of magnitude larger than “utility scale” solar. You can see ISO-NE’s estimate by clicking on the last orange square in the chart on the top right above. On a good summer day the difference between actual usage and what they estimate usage would be without behind the meter solar offsetting it can peak as high as 2 GW or so.
I wish we were having this conversation in the summer, because today (Sunday) was a sad looking renewables day, which will feed certain agendas no doubt.
I still hold, though, that every bit of renewable we add helps reduce the gas usage and avoids some oil burning in the winter. You can see that live in iso-ne’s CO2 chart. Really looking forward to seeing these charts when Vineyard Wind and the other offshore farms come online. It strikes me as a no-brainer to maximize renewables now, but the unknown maybe is what 2035-2050 sources should look like. Do we need to plan ahead and start on nuclear for base load or will a storage saviour technology arise to let us go all in on wind and solar?
I don’t think we can really discuss this issue without dealing with the power supply issue. Sadly we are facing an energy crisis in our state and the drive for more and more electric powered vehicloes and homes. We need to think about this as an entire system
I wonder how many other legislators are taking surveys because the entire conversation seems to be taking place in a bubble. Your data shows what a narrow socioeconomic band is participating in your discussion even after you have reached out. I doubt most voters know this is coming. Certainly condo and other property owners in Cambridge were surprised. Working people and single family homeowners will be shocked.
Beyond taxpayers and property owners, I have not heard from anyone explaining where this agenda originated (it spans multiple countries, it’s certainly not just a MA idea) or how we are to implement it across multiple markets in the same time span during an already inflationary period. We haven’t heard from property insurers. We haven’t heard from economists who can explain the tidal wave of knock on effects in a way people can understand and believe.
These are enormously intrusive proposals that few people can even afford and they’re being vetted only among elites.
Oh of COURSE this is where this comes from. Silly me.
Thank you for expressing what is on many people’s minds. I just cna’t figure out how the WEF leaders manage to influence all our elected officials. They don’t all go to Davos. It’s truly befuddling.
I just converted to a heat pump. I have a ducted HVAC system, and my 17-year old air conditioner was making ominous noises so needed to be replaced. Because of the change in refrigerant type since the AC unit was installed, changing the AC unit meant also replacing the air handler. So the net upfront cost in converting to a heat pump was small, and probably a wash after the MassSave rebate.
In terms of the extra electricity needed to run the heat pump, I installed additional solar panels earlier in the year that should cover most of the extra load. I kept the gas-fired boiler to provide back up heat when the temperature drops below 15F.
It’s true that I did a LOT of research, but I don’t think it was anywhere near the 50-100 hours quote by MassCEC. In the end, I went with a system design that was very similar to what the contractor suggested in the first 15 minutes.
All in all, I’m very happy I converted to a heat pump, and we’ll see how it goes this winter.
What you describe sounds unfortunately like our situation — old Cape, no ducts, we had MassSave look at it about 15 years ago and for our house it’s not easy (fiberglass insulation in old walls is on the “wrong side”, attic is super cramped and hard to access). Rooms in the older part of the house are small and have low ceilings, wall-wart minisplits would intrude. Also the MassSave people gave us a godawful hard sell last time they were here, we don’t really want to deal with them again.
The lack of information is frustrating. We’re considering geothermal instead of air exchange, and I think we could fit high-velocity ducts if we were careful and someone were willing to work with us carefully, but apparently HVAC + geothermal is not a thing. Or maybe it is, it depends who you talk to. I’ve heard also that there are newer minisplits that fit in the ceiling. Is there anything like a “heat pump showroom” where someone could see what these things actually look like (the new ones) and get solid information about what is possible? Could we use our old furnace chimney for ducts, for example? Could we remove it? (I have no idea if that is yeah-sure-fine or complicated and expensive)
I’ve had many friends install mini splits for central AC. They have no effect outside the room where they are installed. Are you supposed to install these hideous things in each bedroom? I can’t imagine the expense.
Currently, the electricity to fuel heat pumps comes mostly from natural gas in Massachusetts.
It seems like you are putting the cart before the horse by trying to get residents to adopt electric appliances that are still fueled by fossil fuels.
At my own expense, I installed heat pumps in my house in 2018, mostly for air conditioning, and heat in the shoulder seasons.
I still prefer my natural gas fueled steam heat radiators in the winter. And the installer of my heat pumps told me this month that my steam heat radiators were still more efficient in temps below 30°.
My steam heat radiators have the added benefit of providing more humidity in the extremely dry winter months too.
Plus, they are quieter than the heat pumps. And they don’t malfunction, requiring the need to be reset, like the heat pumps do.
Just my personal experience.
Kudos to Sen Brownsberger and all of you who have weighed in on this most important issue. I live in Cambridge and am not a constituent but I wish I were. In my city we are dealing with a top down city council which could benefit from your input. But at least I have been able to forward this survey and the Previous report to my councilors. Some are grateful for the information.
Thank you all for providing such thoughtful feedback on this critical issue.
You don’t necessarily need to have ducted air systems with heat pumps. In Europe, it is common to install heat pumps that function with hydronic rather than air systems. While these are often configured with radiant floor heat, there also are radiators available specifically designed for the characteristic low temperature rise of heat pumps compared to conventional hydronic radiators.
Thanks to Will for this information. We had heat pumps in renovated office in Boston in the 80’s, always cold in winter. Overall the new survey suggests the cost benefit ratio doesn’t warrant heat pumps even with new technology. Thanks for the details. I like Kate Caffrey’s idea, return incentives for solar.
thank you so much for your efforts here. We definitely need greater subsidies for energy conservation and electric home heat conversions!
My husband and I got a bunch of estimates for heat pumps to replace our steam heat radiators and to add AC which we currently don’t have except for a few “efficient” window air conditioners. One question that no installer could answer for us is how long the heat pumps will last and more importantly, does the entire system need to be replaced when something breaks down. If we spend $30,000+ now to convert our two-family house, will be have to spend that or more (or less) in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years? Will Mass Save provide rebates for replacement systems at that time? Our current gas system with steam radiators is over 25 years old, and is 85% efficient. Not sure if everything considered with respect to a new system is worth the expense or if it will even matter in the long run
Thanks for your efforts. There’s no perfect solution. But at least the numbers who care about climate change is finally rising.
One thing which may be helpful for those who care about this issue is a single indisputable, up-to-date source of information. You wrote about outdated information about heat pumps; I have a much simpler example to share.
Years ago, when Watertown offered the option, I signed up for getting some/all of my energy from green sources, agreeing to pay a slightly higher rate. Even so, at least once a month, I get a mailing from a company named “Inspire Clean Energy, PO Box 60167, Philadelphia, PA 19102” encouraging me to change. I have no idea whether this is valid or a scam. So, the envelope goes unopened into the recycling bin (are our recyclables REALLY recycled here–“Enquiring minds want to know”) while the remaining trees on the plant cry in despair. Another example: Online I am bombarded by MA specific advertisements to install solar panels “at no out-of-pocket costs in YOUR ZIP code, thanks to a MA state program.” I ignore them; at least those don’t kill trees.
Is there such a source?
Heat pumps are more efficient than electric baseboard heat but not more efficient than a gas fired furnace.
As has been pointed out, much of our electric comes from Nat. Gas electric generation. Until electric is coming from non NG sources those who have switched from NG to heat pumps have been done a great disservice.
As a General Contractor I have been following this for a while and heat pumps are WAY over rated unless you are converting from electric base board. That said, I know of a housing complex that all the units heat with electric baseboard. They have a group discount which they would loose if they converted over to individual heat pumps. In the end they would end up paying more as individuals. They have chosen to not spend a lot of $$ up front just to have to pay more each month for a noisier and more maintenance heat source.
A Mass Save guy came last week to our 1220-sq ft cape with two rooms upstairs under the eaves. Recommended weatherizing doors, only one of which really needs it, for free, worth $268.09 that would supposedly save $307.93 a year. That’s a deal, even if the savings are less. Also wanted to re-insulate upstairs crawlspaces, which are partially insulated with R8 fiberglass. That effort, his estimate said, would cost $5,803.96. After a $3,940.05 rebate, we would pay $1,863.91, to save $222.92 annually., for payback in 5.5 years.
We should replace our clothes washer and dryer, it said, saving $88 a year with $200 in rebates. Appliance prices have gotten pretty steep (Govt-recommended Energy Star washers go for $800 and up, driers from $700). Given that, at a minimum, payback (including rebates) comes in 15 years.
After we weatherize, we qualify for a deal on 4-6 minisplits (we have steam oil heat), no estimated price, but up to $10k rebate for a whole-home solution plus a possible zero-interest loan. (Seems you can’t get a rebate on less than a whole-house heat pump solution, which seems silly to me.) And we would have to abandon our new oil burner and oil tank. Does this make sense to anybody?
According to Will’s reports, there might never be a payback for that. If Mass Save focused mostly on weatherization and modernizing existing heating systems, possibly converting oil to gas, it would have a bigger climate impact than heat pumps, which would wear out before they save money and might might not have less carbon impact.
Seems that lowering energy use (by weatherizing and not overheating or over cooling) trumps switching energy sources and buying heat pumps no matter how you look at it, perhaps unless you have resistance electric heat.
Thanks Will and Co. for the equivocal news. Hope we get some useful policy out if it.
I entirely agree that improving thermal insulation and modernizing the existing heating systems is a more practical short/midterm solution for old buildings. I’m a renter in Allston and I don’t see a point of switching to a heat pump in my building until its thermal insulation is improved. I would guess that better windows alone would reduce the carbon footprint by a factor of two if not more. A moderate improvement of the heating system that would let me regulate heat by other means than opening windows would cut another 30% or so.
Yes I agree .I was told by a plumber (he subs for the town plumber) that heat pumps and new electrical burners would only really be more efficient if we had radiant floor heat in our house which is an old house and we don’t have radiant floor heat. I have gas heating forest, hot water with baseboard, radiators and put in high velocity, air conditioning several years ago and that Hass to be changed because the Freon is no longer in use. I am attending a library sponsored meeting about electricity rates and how to deal with decreasing use. I think we all have to conserve as much as we can.
It’s forced hot water, not forest.
I am probably considered a born pessimist; loading the electric grid with heat exchangers and electric motor vehicle charge stations really rattles my cage. It is a proven fact that utility power generator stations can easily be put out of action with a few well aimed shots, and the lead time to replace same is loooooong, very loooooong. I do not enjoy the prospect of freezing to death, and no matter what you have heard, unless you have experienced long term cold weather as I have in cold weather combat and combat training to simulate same, you have no credible idea of the extreme discomfort inherent in same. And I doubt that it would take a direct purposeful attack on the utility system because I think a one source, source of heat for hundreds of thousand, more likely millions of homes and motor vehicles would not be supportable in the very short long run. Much too vulnerable a concept to bet my life on it.
Another related concept is President Biden’s claim that he will convert 100% of military motor vehicles to electric power; is he ill advised ~ or insane ~ or just a genuine purveyor of snow jobs?
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