Hooked on heating oil: Pushing for heat pumps and weatherization

Efficient electric heat pumps can help replace the oil Maine depends on, but many homes need complex insulation overhauls or extra aid.
A heating pump installed against the brick wall of a residence.
A heat pump is installed on a condo building in Portland's West End. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

Venus Nappi strolled through a community center in South Portland in early April, chatting with vendors at Maine’s annual Green Home + Energy Show about electric heat pumps, solar power, and the discounts that aim to make these and other technologies affordable. A worker in an oversized plush heat pump costume waved a gloved hand nearby.

Nappi heats her Gorham home with oil, as do 60% of Mainers — more than any other state, as The Maine Monitor reported in the first part of this series. She finds oil to be dirty, inconvenient and expensive. Her oil costs this winter, she said, were “crazy, absolutely right up through the roof.” 

Nappi joined a record-breaking crowd at this expo because she’s ready to switch to heat pumps, which can provide heating or cooling at two or three times the efficiency of electric baseboards and with 60% lower carbon emissions than oil, according to Efficiency Maine.

“It’s good to have incentive to try to go somewhere else rather than just the oil,” Nappi said. “Even gas, propane, is actually a little expensive right now, too. The heat pumps are kind of in the middle.” 

Government rebates of up to $2,400, with new tax breaks coming soon, help with up-front heat pump installation costs that can range above $10,000. These incentives have helped put Maine more than 80% of the way to its 2019 goal — now a centerpiece of the state climate plan — of installing 100,000 new heat pumps in homes by 2025, and many more in the years after that.

“This is a real highlight of our climate action,” said state Climate Council chair Hannah Pingree. The state aims to have 130,000 homes using one or two heat pumps by 2030 and 115,000 more using “whole-home” heat pump systems, meaning the devices are their primary heating source. 

But Maine lags much further behind on a related goal of getting 15,000 heat pumps into low-income homes by 2025, using rebates from MaineHousing. At the end of last year, it had provided just over 5,000 heat pumps to the lowest-income homes. 

These homes face particular barriers to maximizing the benefits from this switch — from poor weatherization, to navigating a daunting web of incentives, to fine-tuning a blend of heat sources that can withstand power outages and actually save money instead of driving up bills. 

As fossil fuel costs remain high, the pressure is on for advocates and service providers to expand access to heat pumps and other strategies for reducing oil use, especially for people most often left out of the push for climate solutions. 

Winter limitations don’t rule out big savings

In Maine and beyond, it’s clear that heat pumps are having a major moment — heralded in national headlines as a crucial climate solution that successfully weathered a historic cold snap

But the technology is not new. It’s long been used in refrigerators and air conditioners. 

“The problem was, when you design a heat pump to primarily provide cooling … it is not optimized for making heat,” said Efficiency Maine executive director Michael Stoddard. “So everyone concluded these things are no good in the winter. And then around (the) 2010, ’11, ’12 timeframe, the manufacturers started introducing a new generation of heat pumps that were specially designed to perform in cold climates. … It was like a switch had been flipped.” 

Maine has offered rebates for heat pumps ever since this cold climate technology emerged. Even former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who frequently opposed renewable energy and questioned climate science, installed them in the governor’s mansion and told The Portland Press Herald in 2014 that they’d been “phenomenal” at replacing oil during a cold snap. 

Two potential customers speak with a sales representative about heat pumps.
Potential customers chat with a heat pump vendor at the Green Home + Energy Show in South Portland. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

Heat pumps provide warmth in cold weather the same way they keep warmth out of a fridge — by using electricity and refrigerants to capture, condense and pump that heat from somewhere cold to somewhere warmer. Simply put, they squeeze the heat out of the cold air, then distribute it into the home.

The current generation of heat pumps will keep warming your home even if it’s around negative 13 degrees out.

Heat pumps are less efficient in these colder temperatures, requiring more electricity to make the same heat. With outdoor temperatures in the 40s and 50s, today’s typical cold-climate heat pumps can be roughly 300 or 400% efficient — tripling or quadrupling your energy input. 

As temperatures drop into the teens, heat pumps are often about 200% efficient. And in the single digits or low negatives, heat pumps can be closer to the 100% efficiency of an electric baseboard heater. Costs at this level are closer to that of oil heat, which usually has about an 87% efficiency rating. 

This means heat pumps often generate the most savings and are most efficient when temperatures are above freezing, or when used to provide air conditioning in the summer — something Mainers will want increasingly as climate change creates new extreme heat risks

“During the shoulder seasons, you can definitely use a heat pump. When it’s wicked cold out, then you’d probably turn on your backup fuel. That’s not the official line of Efficiency Maine Trust, but a physical and engineering reality,” said energy attorney Dave Littell, a former top Maine environment and utilities regulator whose clients now include Versant Power — which, along with Central Maine Power, now offers seasonal discounts for heat pump users.

This is a relatively common approach among installers, such as ReVision Energy, a New England solar company that also sells heat pumps. They don’t recommend heat pumps as the only heating source for most customers, especially those who live farther north, unless the home can have multiple units, excellent insulation, and potentially a generator or battery in case of a power outage — a costly package overall. 

“(Heat pumps) do still put out heat (in sub-zero weather), but less, obviously, and they have a lot more cold to combat in those conditions,” said Dan Weeks, ReVision’s vice president for business development. “Generally … we do recommend having a backup heating source.”  

Fine-tuning a blend of heat sources

These blends of heating sources are nothing new in Maine — many families combine, say, a wood stove with secondary heat sources that rely on propane, oil or electricity. Experts say heat pumps are a powerful addition in many cases, adding flexibility and convenience. 

Heat pumps will add to your electric bills but also reduce another expense that’s eating up a lot of household budgets  — heating oil. Instead of spending hundreds to fill your tank just as winter starts to wane (a full 275-gallon tank would run more than $1,000 right now), you might be able to switch entirely to your heat pump in early spring. Vendors say a heat pump will be much more cost-effective than fossil fuels for the vast majority of Maine’s heating season. 

One study from Minnesota — which has lower electric rates and more access to gas, but has made a similar push for heat pumps — found the greatest savings from using a heat pump for 87% of the heating season, switching to a propane furnace only below 15 degrees. 

The title of this chart is "Minnesota backup fuel case study: Hours spent on heat pump and propane at different temperatures when switching over and it's below 15 degrees."
This chart shows the temperatures and total hours where a heat pump and propane furnace were used in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, when the user switched from the heat pump to propane when outdoor temperatures were below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The study found this cut-off temperature meant the heat pump could cover 87% of this home’s heating needs. Chart by Center for Energy & Environment via the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2023 Hot Air Forum.

Electricity costs also change less frequently than fossil fuel prices. And the advent of large-scale renewable energy projects, like offshore wind, aims to help smooth over rate hikes that are now driven by the regional electric grid’s dependence on natural gas, said Littell of Versant Power. (While Maine has little gas distribution for home heat, New England power plants use a lot of it to make the electricity that’s primarily imported to Maine on transmission lines.) 

This will also mean the electricity that fuels your heat pump will be even lower-emissions than it is now. The emissions comparison between heat pumps and oil is based on the current New England electric grid’s carbon footprint, which is set to continue shrinking. 

Paige Atkinson, an Island Institute Fellow working on energy resilience in Eastport, pitches heat pumps as a good addition to a home fuel mix. But she said all these cost comparisons can cause anxiety for people unsure about switching. Oil costs, though rising and prone to fluctuations, can be a “devil you know” versus heat pumps, she said. 

“Transitioning to an entirely new source of heat creates a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ ” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how to best use that system — will it meet my needs?” 

The title of this chart is "Minnesota backup fuel case study: Costs when switching from heat pump to propane at different temperatures."
This chart shows annual heating costs in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, when switching from a cold-climate heat pump to a propane furnace at different temperatures. Both propane prices and electric rates are lower in Minnesota than in Maine. Chart by Center for Energy & Environment via the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s 2023 Hot Air Forum.

The best way to guarantee savings from a heat pump is likely to work closely with your contractor about where to install it, and when and how to run each part of your home’s fuel mix. 

“Our job is to educate (customers) on proper design, proper sizing, best practices for installation,” said Royal River Heat Pumps owner Scott Libby at the South Portland expo. “I always tell people to use the heat pump as much as possible. … If you are starting to get chilly, that might just be for a couple hours in the morning when the temperature outside is coldest, so maybe use your fossil fuels just to give the system a boost in the morning, for even an hour.” 

The condition of your house is another big factor in the heat pump’s performance.

“Weatherization is a great tool. It is not necessary to make a heat pump work … but the heat pump will work better if the house is well weatherized,” said Stoddard with Efficiency Maine. “When you have those super, super cold days, it won’t have to work as much.”  

The need, ideally, for updated insulation and air sealing as prerequisites for heat pumps may help explain the slower progress on getting them into low-income homes. (We’ll address heat pumps as a potential benefit for renters later in this series.)

“I think a lot of the homes especially that (qualify for rebates from) MaineHousing … require a lot of upgrades, just sort of basic home improvements, to get to the next step,” said Hannah Pingree of the state Climate Council. 

“Weatherization is at the very top”  

Bob Moody lives in the kind of house Pingree is talking about in Castle Hill, a tiny town just outside Presque Isle. The ramshackle clapboard split-level totals four stories, set into a wooded hillside. Moody grew up down the road, and his family built this place in the 1980s using much older scrap materials from the former Loring Air Force Base in Caribou. 

Bob Moody’s house in Castle Hill was built with scrap from the former Loring Air Force Base in Caribou. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

On a snowy day in March, Moody was visited by a small team from Aroostook County Action Program, or ACAP. It included his next-door neighbor, ACAP energy and housing program manager Melissa Runshe. She and her colleagues were there for an energy audit, a precursor to weatherization projects — all paid with public funds through MaineHousing. 

“Weatherization is at the very top. If your heat isn’t flying out of your house, it’s going to save you money,” Runshe said. “We have a lot more winter here (in Aroostook County) than in the rest of Maine, so it’s really important to make sure that the houses are energy-efficient — so that they’re not burning as much oil, so that they’re not spending as much money on oil.” 

ACAP officials said they don’t push any technology over another when meeting new clients, but instead describe the options and benefits — savings, comfort, a smaller carbon footprint. This all typically happens after someone has called for heating aid or an emergency fuel delivery — or, in Moody’s case, an emergency fix for their heating equipment. 

Moody’s health forced him to retire early, and he now lives alone on a low fixed income. He’s gotten energy assistance and upgrades from other state and county programs before, but first called ACAP late last year when his main heat source, a kerosene furnace, suddenly died. ACAP got him a new, more efficient oil furnace, then signed him up for a weatherization audit. 

“If it hadn’t been for assistance, I would have been really in trouble,” Moody said as he filled out paperwork at his kitchen table. A sticker on the wall proclaimed Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong, will. “Murphy has been settling in very heavily on me,” he laughed. 

Moody’s ACAP audit included a blower door test, which depressurizes the house to expose air leaks. They showed up on a thermal imager as cold seeping in through window seams, power outlets, hairline cracks in the walls, and most of all, an uninsulated exterior-facing wooden door that was down the hall from Moody’s new furnace, sucking heat from the rest of the house.

“He has, roughly, a (total of a) one-by-two-foot-square hole that’s wide open in the house,” said energy auditor BJ Estey. “It’s basically like the equivalent of having a window open year-round.”  

A closeup of the thermal imager that shows on a small screen where cold air is leaking through into the residence.
A thermal imager shows cold air leaking through an electrical outlet and hidden gaps in drywall at the Castle Hill home of Bob Moody, left, during an free energy audit he received from Aroostook County Action Program. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

The inspection showed weatherization could save Moody $1,230 a year on oil. New windows and doors would help even more — but the weatherization program doesn’t offer those, and there’s a 900-person waiting list for ACAP’s program that does. Instead, the staff told Moody to try a federal option for home repair grants and loans, and promised to help him with the forms. 

For people who don’t receive MaineHousing-funded upgrades, Efficiency Maine offers healthy rebates for air sealing and insulation performed by contractors. Last winter it also added a small new rebate for do-it-yourself home weatherization, such as plastic wrap for windows, pipe wraps and caulk, which has since expired.

“No wrong doors”

Groups like ACAP also offer free heat pumps for low-income residents using MaineHousing funds. The rebates feed the state’s goal, where progress has been slow. 

Moody has one kind of heat pump in his home but it’s not the type that provides hot air — it’s a heat pump-based hot water heater, which he got for free through a rebate from Efficiency Maine. He loves the savings and convenience it’s provided. 

But he doesn’t think an air-source heat pump — the kind that can replace an oil furnace — will work for his home, which has many small rooms split up across levels. (Installers often recommend at least one heat pump per floor.) He’s also worried about how a heat pump would affect his electric bills. He knows he couldn’t afford electric baseboard heat, so he’s concerned about the very cold conditions where a heat pump’s efficiency drops down to around that level. 

“Sometimes in the middle of the winter, you get so cold that you just might as well have an electric (baseboard) heater,” he said. “And there ain’t no way that I can afford an electric heater — not even one month.” 

Down the road in Castle Hill, Melissa Runshe’s newer-construction house came with three heat pumps, a boiler that can use wood pellets or oil, and a propane fireplace. “I think (heat pumps) are wonderful,” for heating when temperatures are above about 20 and for summer cooling, she said. “They definitely offset the cost of my oil.” 

While not every house is heat pump-ready, it may be even more important to get folks like Moody connected with this energy safety net in the first place. This will continue to decrease his oil dependence, offering escalating upgrades as his home changes and funding sources shift.  

“In the social services world, there’s this idea of ‘no wrong doors,’ and we need to adopt that for home energy as well,” said Maine Conservation Voters policy director Kathleen Meil, the co-chair of state Climate Council’s buildings group. “There’s no distilling and simplifying how people live in their homes. You experience your house and your home’s heating situation not as a data point, but as your daily life.”

For people like Meil, there are multiple goals working in tandem — help Mainers reduce their reliance on planet-warming fuels like heating oil, while helping them lower household energy costs, and live with more comfort and convenience. This is what climate advocates mean when they say the crisis is “intersectional” — it’s interwoven with health, race, poverty and more. 

Juggling these issues can mean making more incremental progress toward emissions goals — but that’s far better than nothing in scientific terms, said Ivan Fernandez, a professor in the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.

“Everything we do, every increment we do, counts,” Fernandez said. “I think we need to do this transition in a relatively quick way, recognizing that it will be imperfect, and spending a good part of our focus on realistic, data-driven, science-driven tracking of where we are at, so we’re not telling ourselves fables that aren’t substantiated by the science.” 

Officials say Maine used this kind of science in building detailed goals for things like heat pump adoption, adding them up toward a path to the two biggest targets that are inked in state statute — reducing emissions 45% over 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. 

“Ultimately the atmosphere will determine how successful we are. It’s already telling us that we have not been very successful in many ways,” said Fernandez. “But … I think we’re embracing the reality of that a lot better.”

Gaps in state incentives

Setting these goals carefully and pushing hard to meet them does not guarantee equity — and there are still holes in the state’s approach, according to people working on spreading the benefits of the energy transition to those who might not be able to access it without help. 

The Community Resilience Partnership, or CRP, is the state’s signature grant program for town-level climate action. Each project starts with a local survey to determine residents’ priorities out of a 72-item list that includes everything from flood protection to energy efficiency. 

State officials say the CRP was designed primarily to build up towns’ capacity to respond to climate change. But advocates say they’ve had to work around a crucial gap in the program: It won’t buy equipment directly for individuals, which is often what people say they want the most. 

“There are communities who really do have the need to fund heat pumps beyond what Efficiency Maine is providing,” said Sharon Klein, an energy consultant and University of Maine professor who works with Maine tribes on their CRP projects. “Because there’s still that last piece of it where money still needs to be put up, and some people don’t have that money.” 

For people whose income is not quite low enough to qualify for a totally free heat pump through MaineHousing, Efficiency Maine’s rebates will cover $2,000 for a first unit and $400 for a second. People at any income level can get $400 to $1,200 for one or two units. This might cover some or all of the cost of a typical single heat pump — but total installation costs can range from around $4,000 to above $10,000, depending on the complexity of the system. 

Starting this tax year, the Inflation Reduction Act will offer new tax credits of 30% for heat pumps, up to $2,000 per year. The IRA will also provide additional rebates to cover heat pumps and other home electrification projects, but the details of those rebates are still being finalized. The IRA allows states to, in theory, offer as much as 100% of project costs up to $8,000 for low-income families, or 50% of costs for moderate-income families — but state officials are still deciding how exactly this limited pot of money will be used and who will be eligible. The rebates will not be universal or unlimited, said Stoddard with Efficiency Maine, but should benefit several thousand homes.

A man takes notes while performing a blower door test in a residence.
Energy auditor BJ Estey of Aroostook County Action Program takes notes during a blower door test, which checks a house for air leaks, in Castle Hill. Photo by Annie Ropeik.

Dan Weeks of ReVision Energy said increasing availability of low- or no-interest loans is another priority for those who want to see more people switch from oil to efficient electric heat. The IRA will help Maine expand its Green Bank in the next year or so to “start offering financing to particularly low-income folks and folks with poor credit,” Weeks said. 

But tax credits and cheap loans are still deferred ways of helping people lower their oil costs and cover those remaining heat pump costs. Downeast CRP coordinator Tanya Rucosky, who works on community resilience for Washington County’s Sunrise County Economic Council, said many families simply can’t afford to make the switch. 

“Folks need just a little bit of seed money,” she said. Without more support, “it locks out the people that potentially need it the most.” 

Atkinson, the Island Institute Fellow, said Eastport found a creative way to offer direct funding within the constraints of its CRP grant. People who participate in the city’s peer-to-peer energy coaching program, Weatherize Eastport, can get another $2,000 toward heat pump installation. 

“They’re agreeing to become almost ambassadors for this program. One of the steps to do that is to volunteer some time,” Atkinson said. “The city is compensating these residents for their time involved in this partnership, rather than saying, we will just give you funds for X, Y and Z.”  

Solutions like this are key to ensuring these tools for moving off oil can grow equitably, said Rucosky — helping more people to join the transition and spread the gospel of its benefits. 

“Especially for Mainers — they’re so salty and smart. They’re like, ‘What’s the catch?’ So I don’t think there’s any getting around the labor of it,” Rucosky said. “The more people have successful experiences doing this, the more I don’t have to be the one saying it …and it can be like, Bob down the road. And so it builds — but it takes a long time to build that, where everybody knows this is how you get this done. That’s going to be years in the making.” 

Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this story misstated the tax relief for heat pumps and other home energy saving projects that is available under the Inflation Reduction Act. One aspect of the IRA incentives is a rebate for heat pumps and other home electrification projects that is still being finalized by the state. The story also misstated a rebate available for small scale home sealing and other do-it-yourself projects. That rebate has expired. In addition, the name of Efficiency Maine executive director Michael Stoddard was misspelled in one instance. The Monitor regrets the errors.

In the next part of this series, we’ll explore the complex role of wood heat — from pellets to advanced biofuels — in helping to reduce Maine’s dependence on heating oil. 

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This series is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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