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Sean Mahoney is executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation.
It is easy to lose sight of progress in the fight to prevent climate catastrophe, especially in light of the continued legislative stalemate in Washington, D.C. So, it is important to celebrate successes when we can. One resounding success here in Maine is the increased number of air source heat pumps that are beginning to take a real bite out of our dependence on fossil fuels to heat our homes and businesses.
Heat pumps draw in air from the outside and use the difference in temperature between the air inside and the air outside to heat your home. And, because heat pumps use electricity, rather than gas or oil, they can be paired with solar panels or other cleaner forms of power.
Of course, the success of heat pumps is a major concern of those who profit by extending our dependence on this polluting and climate damaging fuel. So, it was no surprise that Maine’s oil dealers joined with their compatriots from the other New England states last week to call for a moratorium on the programs that have so successfully supported the conversion to heat pumps. This call deserves a response from my organization and our colleagues at Acadia Center, Maine Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other organizations who have worked to support these programs.
These merchants of oil claim that continued conversion to heat pumps will lead to power outages like those in Texas last winter and attempt to associate heat pump usage with the recent fuel supply concerns raised by the operator of New England’s electrical grid, ISO New England. This is not surprising for an industry that has lied about the science and facts of climate change over the last 50 years.
While ISO New England has raised concerns about supplies of electricity this winter, its concerns have nothing to do with states’ efforts to install more heat pumps. Rather, the concerns stem from issues around the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, including delivery and supply chain issues during cold weather, as well as the continued export of natural gas to Europe where the natural gas industry looks to cash in on soaring prices.
As to Texas, the comparison isn’t even close. The catastrophe in Texas last winter was the result of a system completely unprepared for the longest, coldest, and snowiest weather there in decades. Mainers know that pipes will freeze in winter if not properly insulated, and Texas, unlike New England, failed to take this precaution. In Texas the failure of their electrical system and the resulting price spikes were due to frozen components, which shut down natural gas and nuclear power plants.
That is not to say that there could be no price spikes this winter in New England. It is a fact that as long as New England and Maine are dependent on volatile commodities like oil and gas, those industries will seek to maximize profit during periods of high demand, driving costs to consumers up. It is for precisely this reason that transitioning to an electric system that rewards and incentivizes energy efficiency and storage measures and uses energy that is renewable, cheap and local (for example, solar, wind and geothermal) is so critical.
We’ve already doubled the number of heat pumps installed in Maine over the last year, from 12,758 to 27,326. A big part of that success has been Gov. Janet Mills’ expansion of the residential and commercial rebate program administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust. While Maine still has a way to go to kicking our addiction to heating oil — in 2021, 60 percent of Maine homes are heated with oil — we are making steady progress to meeting the goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps by 2025, a cornerstone of Maine’s Climate Action Plan.
Removing the incentives and rebates for heat pumps as called for by the oil dealers would only punish those who don’t have the resources to choose a cleaner, healthier and cheaper way to heat, cool and dehumidify their homes and businesses. There is nothing just or equitable about that. Stay the course, Maine. Dirigo.