Space and water heating represent a large portion of the energy used in homes in the Northeast. Most of this energy comes from fossil fuels, and combined, space and water heating account for 60 to 70 percent of a building’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Switching to renewable sources of heat to displace fossil fuel heating is essential for the reduction of GHG emissions. Accelerating the adoption of renewable heating and cooling (RH&C) technologies is part of the solution for tackling emission reductions and for helping states and cities meet their long-term energy and climate goals.
States have been incentivizing the adoption of RH&C technologies such as air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, solar hot water, and modern wood pellet boilers for several years. But even with the availability of incentives and rebates, the RH&C market has been slow to grow making it harder to meet aggressive climate goals. For example, Massachusetts’ Comprehensive Energy Plan, which describes the need to invest in and install RH&C technologies, estimates that 20-30 percent of homes (half a million to three quarter million homes) in the state need to install heat pumps by 2030 to meet the state’s climate goals. How can Massachusetts and other states help transition the thermal sector to renewable technologies?
Part of the answer lies in understanding the challenges and market barriers that RH&C technologies face. First, the public has little awareness of these technologies. Second, economics — fossil fuel prices are currently low and RH&C equipment costs are high. Lastly, RH&C installers have limited capacity both to work outside their local area and to meet increased demand leading up to and during the heating season.
States, cities, and towns are trying to adapt for renewable heating technologies a very successful and widely replicated group-purchasing community campaign program for residential solar photovoltaic (PV) called “Solarize.” Since 2008, the Solarize model has been widely replicated across the country. It began in Portland, Oregon and tripled the number of PV systems installed there in six months at costs twenty percent lower than the average system price. Subsequent Solarize campaigns in other parts of the country have likewise demonstrated the effectiveness of creating demand through local outreach with community bulk-purchasing discounts. Solarize is an attractive proposition for a sector trying to get to scale.
The Solarize model owes its success to a few simple strategies that have driven down costs and ensured high-quality installations:
- Bulk anddiscount pricing
- Program sponsorship and support by a trusted organization, such as a community group or state energy office
- An easy sign-up process
- Consistent messaging and coordinated outreach activities
- A limited sign-up period with deadlines for customer enrollment
- A dedicated campaign leader and a team of community volunteers.
By employing these strategies, Solarize communities in Connecticut achieved 24 to 65 times the rate of new solar installations than over the previous seven years and at 20 to 30 percent of the cost. In Massachusetts, the number of solar installations more than doubled in participating communities as a result of the Solarize campaigns.
Several municipalities across the U.S. have deployed Solarize strategies for the thermal sector. These community campaigns go by several names, most commonly “HeatSmart,” and colloquially as “thermalize.” Recently, state energy offices in Massachusetts and New York have rolled out RH&C community campaign programs with their support.
HeatSmart campaigns offer a variety of RH&C technologies: air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, solar hot water systems, and modern wood pellet boilers. Like Solarize campaigns, HeatSmart campaigns are organized and managed by municipalities, counties, and community groups. Campaign programs may offer a suite of RH&C technologies as part of their program, or they may only offer one. Each community campaign program deploys an outreach strategy, which varies both in target audience and in approach. Some campaigns have targeted Solarize participants and other early renewable technology adopters; others have relied on active community groups such as Mothers Out Front to spread the word. More sophisticated programs have used data “scraping” software that uses demographic information and other indicators to identify those homeowners most likely to benefit from RH&C.
Early HeatSmart programs have already provided important insights on program design and success. HeatSmart programs are driving RH&C market adoption, though not at the cost reductions or rates achieved by Solarize. However, Massachusetts’ campaigns have seen a 58 percent increase in adoption in comparison to the years without HeatSmart campaigns.
There are several important take-aways that communities should keep in mind when planning HeatSmart campaigns:
- Since homes differ widely, it is difficult to reduce costs dramatically for heating technologies. Many heating projects must be individually designed for each home.
- Installers tend to stay local and are not well equipped to scale-up in response to increased demand.
- Education and outreach are key.
- Customers rely on vetted installers for high-quality installations.
- Transparent pricing is an important aspect of the program.
For a more in-depth analysis on HeatSmart campaigns, download the Clean Energy States Alliance’s recent report, Community Campaigns for Renewable Heating and Cooling Technologies, Four Case Studies: https://www.cesa.org/assets/2019-Files/Community-Campaigns-Renewable-Heating-Cooling.pdf.
Look for our next two stories in this series in G.E.T.’s November issue, which will feature case studies from recent HeatSmart campaigns.
Val Stori is Project Director for Clean Energy States Alliance.