Matt Cota: Things to consider in Vermont's thermal energy transformation

This commentary is by Matt Cota, executive director of Vermont Fuel, a nonprofit organization of heating fuel and service businesses.

The old adage “Don’t put your eggs in one basket” is as true for energy as it is for eggs.

Witness what has happened over the past few days. An energy spike in Texas causing rolling blackouts, leaving 2 million people without power, cold and in the dark. Here in Vermont, many homeowners who have an electric air source heat pump received an email warning on Feb. 12 that that their utility will “manage” the device remotely to lower energy consumption during peak demand. This is not surprising and understood as necessary by those in the energy policy arena because we are a winter-peaking state. We draw the most amount of electrons during the coldest nights in the winter. 

And when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, the New England power grid relies mostly on coal, natural gas, and oil to provide the electricity that powers heat pumps.

It is also understood by those who purchase an air source heat pump that, in most cases, they can’t provide 100% of the heat 100% of the time. This comes not just from someone who runs a school that trains heating technicians but from the energy experts at the Vermont Department of Public Service. According to data collected by that department, a cold climate electric heat pump replaces about 40% of a building’s heat load.

There have been many twists and turns regarding a Burlington ballot resolution to regulate heating equipment. The original proposal before the Burlington ordinance committee was not a ban at all. Nor was it a carbon tax. The original proposal by Mayor Miro Weinberger was simply an “impact fee” paid on new construction if the homeowner chose to install a gas stove, furnace, or boiler. 

Implicit in this policy proposal is a recognition that electric heat, despite improvements with air source heat pumps, cannot entirely replace the combustion burner. The original proposal also recognized that traditional combustion heating equipment, when powered by renewable fuel, such as biomass, biodiesel and renewable natural gas, should not pay the impact fee.

The heating service professionals who are members of Vermont Fuel are the ones installing air source electric pumps. They are suggesting homeowners keep their backup heat source only because they know the damage that frozen pipes can cause to a home. I have been in dozens of dark and cold basements, thawing pipes in order to get the heat back on. 

There is no question that we will continue to sell, install and service air source heat pumps. At the current pace, I expect 80,000 Vermont homes to have one before the end of the decade. But when we install them, we cannot suggest consumers abandon combustion heat. What we can do is suggest consumers use a more efficient and renewable source of heat to complement — not compete — with air source heat pumps.

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