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Heat pumps could provide help for Maine

Posted April 05, 2012, at 3:59 p.m.

In the next few weeks the Maine legislature will vote on LD 1864, An Act to Lower the Price of Electricity for Maine Consumers. The bill authorizes Maine electric utilities to offer efficient electric heating pilot programs to electricity customers in Maine.

Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service Co. plan to offer on-bill financing to customers who install a heat pump. Customers will have up to five years to pay for the equipment using to savings they achieve from moving off oil heat. The final program will require approval of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Heat pump technology isn’t new, but with the price of home heating oil climbing once again and recent cuts in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding, our most vulnerable homeowners are facing crisis situations. The LIHEAP crisis could be solved by converting these customers to heat pumps. Bangor Hydro and MPS have been working closely with heat pump manufacturers for years and we’ve seen the technology evolve.

When Gov. LePage challenged us to find a way to reduce energy costs for Mainers, it was a great opportunity to try to get heat pump technology into the homes of our customers. It’s easy to be skeptical when something sounds too good to be true, so we encourage consumers to do the research if considering a heat pump purchase.

Heat pumps work by using refrigerant to absorb heat from the outside air. Refrigerant is naturally much colder than outside air, even on a cold day. Electricity is used to move the refrigerant and transfer heat from one space from another. Depending on the type of heat pump, they may pull heat from the air or the ground. The technology works the same way air conditioners work and in fact can be used to cool your home very efficiently in the summer.

Because heat pumps are extracting heat from the air or ground, they can be up to 400 percent more efficient than conventional heaters. To put it into perspective, consider that most traditional fuel oil furnaces are 75-80 percent efficient. This means that for every 100 gallons of oil that you burn, you get the equivalent of 75 to 80 gallons worth usable heat. Wood pellet stoves are 50-65 percent efficient, which means for every ton of pellets that you burn, you get about a half a ton worth of heat.

With heat pumps, for every unit of electricity you put into the heater to operate it, the heat pump is able to extract from the environment approximately two to four times the heat than would otherwise be created by that unit of electricity.

One obstacle preventing many customers from installing heat pumps has been the cost. Unless you’re building a new home or business, it seems senseless to spend money on another heating system. However, heat pumps are so efficient that they pay for themselves within three or four years just in the savings achieved by not filling the oil tank. Once the equipment is paid for, those savings can be adding up in your bank account.

These systems are designed to supplement your primary heat source and, depending on size, cost up to $5,000, including materials and labor. Average savings per year can range from $1,100 to $1,700, again depending on size. A unit will generally pay for itself in energy savings in about three to four years.

You might want to think about using your heat pump and your oil furnace in combination — just like you use your commuter car and your SUV. Most of the time you will want to use your heat pump because it is so efficient, but there will be about 10 days a year when you will want to use your oil furnace or wood stove to provide additional heat when the temperature dips below 10 degrees.

Heat pumps give Mainers heating options in a time when heating oil is once again climbing out of control. Mainers use the most heating oil per capita in the U.S., with more than 75 percent using oil to heat their homes at a cost of $286 million this past year. Heat pumps also reduce CO2 emissions.

Bangor Hydro and MPS want to invest in real energy solutions for our customers. If you want to learn more, go to bangorhydro.com. If you want the Legislature to vote yes, contact your local legislator.

Gerry Chasse is president and chief operating officer of Bangor Hydro Electric Company and Maine Public Service.

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