Steve Thurston: The cold truth about heat pumps

This commentary is by Steve Thurston, of Ferrisburgh. He is a retired general contractor and builder who advocates for sensible energy policy.

The so-called “Affordable Heat Act” calls for 145,000 heat pumps to be installed in Vermont homes by 2030. The PUC examined the affordability of heat pumps in the 2021 Annual Energy Report to the Legislature. The report states that a heat pump “would save little cost for a GMP customer and cost more on an annual basis for a WEC customer. This analysis only looks at operating costs and does not include the upfront costs of installing a heat pump. However, customers may choose the heat pump for different reasons, including the ability to add air conditioning during the summer.”

What more needs to be said?

In as much as the PUC has already told the Legislature that heat pumps are not “affordable,” why is the Democrat controlled Legislature still pushing Vermonters to install heat pumps? Why are they forcing taxpayers to come up with $850,000 for the PUC to study this issue when they have ignored the PUC’s previous report?

There are other issues with heat pumps that the Legislature sweeps under the rug:

We have a heat pump. It blows cold air frequently when the outside temperature drops below freezing. That is because about two times each hour, the heat pump reverses operation and becomes an air conditioner for 10 minutes, taking heat from the house to melt ice buildup on the coil in the outside unit. We turn the heat pump off for much of the winter because our propane boiler provides warmth full time when we need it. The heat pump produces less heat as the temperature drops, the opposite of what is needed.

How environmentally friendly are heat pumps? Heat pumps use a refrigerant (HFC) that is a potent greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, HFCs have global warming potentials (GWPs) (a measure of the relative climate impact of a GHG) that can be hundreds to thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2). One issue that is completely avoided in the heat pump discussion is the loss of refrigerant from leaks during operation and at end of life disposal.  Industry sources put the loss of refrigerant at 2.8% per year. HFCs contribute worldwide greenhouse gasses equivalent to the aviation industry! The Legislature should not be encouraging, let alone subsidizing, the transition to a technology that is the fourth leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions by deploying 145,000 heat pumps in the next seven years, before any reductions in HFCs take place.

Why does the government not immediately pass a law forbidding the release of such potent greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere? The reason is the renewable industry, and the heat pump industry are powerful special interests who successfully lobby against such restrictions, much like the tobacco industry for decades prevented laws that would have saved millions of people from dying of lung cancer. Current treaties allow HFCs to be released at 100% of current levels, with gradual decreases to 70% of current levels by mid-century.

To summarize:

  • The centerpiece of the Affordable Heat Act is rapid deployment of heat pumps.
  • Heat pumps are not cost effective according to recent PUC reports that have been ignored by the legislature.
  • S.5 requires the PUC to spend $850,000 to study the same issue.
  • Heat pumps do not heat your home when the temperature falls below freezing.
  • Heat pumps increase your the overall energy footprint when used for air conditioning.
  • Heat pumps release dangerous greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and the government allows this to continue due to economic pressure from special interests.

It is time to pull the plug on the Un-Affordable Heat Act. This bill should die in the House Energy Committee. Make sure your representatives know where you stand.

14 thoughts on “Steve Thurston: The cold truth about heat pumps

  1. I’m NOT for the government supplementing these technologies but my split air system works great. It blows cold in the summer and heat in the winter, and saves me a lot of money over my propane boiler. To say they don’t work is denying reality. The little I got from Vermont to offset the cost is a joke, it had no impact on my decision to have it installed.

  2. The original idea of a heat pump was to bury a looping of pipes underground, deep enough to absorb the constant ground temperature, circulate water through the pipes, and deliver the water to an exchanger in the building. This was to bring the inside temperature up to ground temperature and then leave the rest of the heating to more conventional means.

  3. electric heat pumps are like turning your Window air conditioner inside out !
    Not very bright !! Not very warm

  4. I’m a renter who doesn’t have a heat pump. My friend got one as supplemental heat. It’s almost all he uses in the winter now, it saves him a good amount of money. He says there were a handful of nights this winter he used his oil heat. I guess people have different experiences. Also the sentence that they increase your energy footprint for air conditioning seems, well, obvious. How they’d cool your home without using energy is beyond me.

    I don’t support bills like the one proposed but I think this is misleading

  5. I live in southern VT and put 2 heat pumps in last year. I could not be happier. They work great and heated the house when it was 20 below. My electric bill went up about $150 a month but it would have cost $500 or more a month in oil. In my opinion the article is very misleading and when replacing a unit the refrigerant can be recycled by the company doing the work. As the country moves toward relying on the electrical grid more and weaning off fossil fuels these make the most sense

    • From the Efficiency Vermont website:
      “GHG fugitive emissions: These are emissions that are accidentally released into the atmosphere. One big example is leakage from refrigeration systems. These leaks have a huge impact. Early analysis indicates that if all of Vermont’s commercial refrigeration systems cut their annual leakage rate in half, it would save about 80,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent GHG annually.” Heat pumps are refrigeration systems.

  6. Here is another guy who understands and installs heat pumps.

    As he explains, the gains are marginal at best. Basically it’s a refrigerator in reverse, refrigerating the outdoors, and its coil (the back of the fridge) goes in your house.
    It sort of works, but not very well. People who have sunk a fortune in them don’t like to admit they were had, because it makes them look dumb, so the truth that they aren’t worth it, are silent.
    It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption, and a scam based on the false narrative that carbon dioxide is causing massive global warming, and destroying the planet.
    Reality is we need more, not less CO2, it is essential for plant life, and the earth has had many times more in the air, not associated with any kind of “global warming”.
    So yes, it sort of works, sometimes, but you could buy an awful lot of propane or oil and be warm, for the money wasted on these ridiculous products.
    See also:

  7. Having lived in Florida for a while during the winter the heat pump could not even warm the house in Florida it stays on for a couple of hours and then it has to defrost which means there’s no heat coming into the house I just don’t understand why any logical thinking person would think that a heat pump was so much better than the heat that we already have need to do lots more investigation and where are the people of the Northeast Kingdom going to get the kind of money that they need to redo their homes and put in another heating system I don’t have it my parents don’t have it my neighbors don’t have it where do we get this money from?

    • Rather surprising that the government found the money to create the railroad, highway systems, the airline industry, the space program, and the FHA (which provided 20,000,000 affordable homes to American families), yet we wonder “where do we get this money from?” Is there some segment of the American population that is getting ignored here? Is there some interest group that wants that segment ignored?

  8. Our state is owned by lobbyists, ngo’s and non profits, none of which we elected, all of which bought our representatives and operate freely, in their own self interests, they pull the strings and write the laws.

  9. Not exactly true.I used a heat pump this winter to heat my home in northern Vermont.The colder it got the better it heated.The newest models are made to operate efficiently in cold climates.I found it to be less expensive than my pellet stove to operate and the fan paused during defrost.

  10. You said it. Simply put and right on point – it’s the “renewable” lobby paid for by all those businesses that are getting rich off this Vermont scam of scams.Vermont legislators have no common sense or even a sense of responsibility to VT taxpayers.

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