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

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Electric heat can be efficient, expert says

 

It's too early to know the details of these programs, but ratepayer money won't be used to finance it. Consumers will have to pay for the systems themselves. Utilities, however, can set up on-bill financing, and may offer loans or work with commercial lenders. They also hope to increase revenue through electricity sales.

Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Maine Public Service Co. are likely to be strong promoters of the program. Chasse, the utilities' executive, says spending money on heat pumps is a more cost-effective form of efficiency than spending on conservation. Maine's electric usage rate is very low, he points out; only 10 percent of the energy used in the state is in the form of electricity. Meanwhile, oil heat is the highest per capita in the country.

"This is simply a case of finding the low-hanging fruit when it comes to energy efficiency, and heating happens to be where it's at," he told lawmakers at a public hearing on LePage's proposal.

Heat pumps have two main designs. They can capture warmth from groundwater, in the form of geothermal energy. Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient year round, but they're expensive and tend to be used in new construction.

Because few homes are being built in Maine, Chasse favors a new generation of air-type heat pumps, like the ones at Merriconeag. They are designed to work in cold climates and can warm an existing home today for half the cost of oil, Chasse said.

He figures air-type heat pumps could handle more than 80 percent of a typical home's heat needs. But because they're less efficient in very cold weather, the heaters will be promoted as a supplement to existing oil burners, which could be turned on during subzero temperatures.

That combination, and the large cost savings, make heat pumps attractive for low-income households, Chasse said. The quick payback could make a case for installing them in homes that qualify for low-income heating assistance, rather than channeling federal money to buy oil each year.

"It's a real solution to our LIHEAP dependency," he said.

That notion will be tested with a $1 million federal grant by Efficiency Maine Trust that targets alternative heating systems in low-income homes. The trust wants to learn how much energy is saved and at what cost, and what challenges customers face in using this equipment.

"The results will help us design future programs to help Mainers get better access to low-cost heating options," according to Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine.

SCHOOL PLEASED WITH RESULTS

At Merriconeag, the heat pump's performance during its first heating season is of great interest to Will Hight, the school's caretaker.

He has been monitoring comfort levels in the 2,570-square-foot building and is pleased. A couple of February nights saw temperatures fall below zero, but the two electric-resistance heaters installed for backup and set at 52 degrees didn't turn on.

Hight also has been watching the building's electric bill, which averaged $300 a month this winter. Monthly consumption averages 2,200 kilowatt hours, and that includes lighting.

The building's southern exposure, superinsulation and high-efficiency lighting reduce demand. And at a total cost of $10,000, the heat pumps were cheaper than a natural gas boiler, which was another option when the building was being designed.

"I got a healthy, safe, warm environment that functions efficiently," he said. "And I never hear a grumble."

CONCERNS: COST, RISE IN PEAK LOAD

The school didn't consider electric thermal storage, but it will be an option in the upcoming utility pilot programs. The heating units contain ceramic bricks in an insulated cabinet. The bricks are warmed overnight using off-peak electricity that's offered at a lower rate.

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