April 1, 2012

Pumps fuel interest in electric heat

Gov. LePage's administration says the new technology will cut energy costs. Skeptics fear a drain on the power grid.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT — A return of winter temperatures last week brought biting winds and sub-freezing temperatures to Maine, but inside the new Handcraft building at the Merriconeag Waldorf School here, it was cozy and calm.

click image to enlarge

Electric heat can be efficient, expert says


Warmth was coming from two electric heaters, but not the familiar kind that send current through wires. Each unit circulates a refrigerant that was absorbing heat present in the outside air. The transferred heat was pumped into a wall-mounted evaporator, which was blowing quietly and warming the room to 65 degrees.

Unlike typical electric baseboards, this technology moves heat rather than creates it. Overall efficiency is greater than 300 percent, and operating costs are a fraction of electric resistance heat. This makes heat pumps much cheaper to run than oil or propane boilers, and eliminates venting, chimneys and annual maintenance.

A typical system costs between $3,500 and $10,000 installed, said Gerry Chasse, president and chief operating officer of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Maine Public Service Co. If the system is used to offset oil heat, it could repay the investment in less than five years.

As oil prices have risen, a modern heat pump can warm living space at the equivalent price of $1.50 a gallon for oil, says Pat Coon, managing partner at ReVision Heat in Portland, which installs alternative heating equipment. Heating oil was selling for an average of $3.86 a gallon statewide last month, according to the Maine Office of Energy Independence and Security, which tracks statewide prices.

The administration of Gov. Paul LePage is bullish on efficient electric heat. It says that installing thousands of heat pumps and electric storage heaters, which charge thermal bricks with cheaper, off-peak power, is a key solution to Maine's dependence on expensive fuel oil. These systems are popular in other states and in Canada, but are unusual in Maine, where oil has been the dominant heating fuel.

But can efficient electric heat really reduce the overall energy costs for Maine homes and small businesses?

Will the equipment, some of it quite new, be reliable and effective?

How would the region's electric grid handle the demand for more power, especially at times of high use?

These and other questions will be studied in pilot programs that are expected to be introduced later this year by Maine's electric utilities and Efficiency Maine Trust, which coordinates conservation efforts for the state. Also to be determined: Will Mainers embrace these technologies, and are they willing to spend money to switch to them?

Advocates say efficient electric heat may offer additional benefits. Thermal storage heaters, for example, can support wind and tidal power by providing a way to bank renewable energy and release it as needed. Storage heat also helps pay the fixed cost of transmission lines by using them at night, when there's excess capacity.

The governor's plan has attracted some skeptics and outright critics, however.

Environmental groups say the state's first priority should be weatherizing homes, because that's the most effective way to cut energy bills. They also caution that heat pumps, which also function as air conditioners in summer, could speed the need for new power plants.

The governor's plan also irritates companies that sell oil, propane and wood fuels. They complain that the state is promoting programs that benefit their competitors.

These and other concerns led lawmakers to modify a full-blown effort by LePage to introduce a large, ratepayer-financed electric heat conversion and loan plan. As a compromise, a pilot program is pending in which utilities can offer heat pumps or electric thermal storage units to up to 500 homes and small businesses.

The program must be approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Power companies can enroll customers until the end of 2013, and must measure and report on various impacts by mid-November 2013.

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