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My Turn: ‘Forced march’ to heat pumps is bad policy

For the Monitor
Published: 1/8/2020 6:00:54 AM
Modified: 1/8/2020 6:00:20 AM

I am writing to respond to a perspective offered recently in this space by Dan Weeks, claiming New Hampshire is ready today to meet 100% of its energy needs, including space heating, without natural gas (Monitor Opinion, Dec. 17 and Dec. 26).

According to the best available evidence, Weeks is wrong.

I have presented such evidence to the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, as an expert witness on behalf of Liberty Utilities. As a former state regulator in energy and environmental agencies, and as an expert on energy policy specializing in regulatory mechanisms to address climate change in New England, I do not believe it makes sense to assume – as Weeks does – the widespread uptake of electric heat pumps in cold climates like New Hampshire.

I have spent my career in public service and policy research and analysis, with a history of effectively promoting policies to address climate change. I served as chairman of the Department of Public Utilities in Massachusetts (the equivalent of the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission) under Gov. Deval Patrick, at a time when my agency administered aggressive laws, regulations and policies to reduce the greenhouse gas (“GHG”) impacts of energy supply and use.

I oversaw the development of state regulation and policy to expand renewable portfolio standards and net metering for solar systems, to increase utility energy efficiency investments and enter into long-term purchases of zero-carbon energy sources, and to decouple revenues from sales for both electric and natural gas utilities.

As a researcher, I have completed extensive studies related to the positive economic impact of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to control carbon dioxide emissions, including in New Hampshire; mechanisms for effective pricing of CO2 in electricity markets; and the combined consumer and climate impact of different energy futures. I have provided expert testimony about the benefits of reducing methane leaks from natural gas systems. And I share with many the viewpoint that we must find a pathway to a decarbonized energy future by 2050.

But despite what Weeks implies, this is not going to be easy, and from climate and consumer perspectives, the pathway really matters. In particular, evidence shows a forced march to heat pumps where natural gas is available could cause greater emissions of greenhouse gases, while also being unnecessarily costly for New Hampshire’s businesses and residents. The assertions made by heat pump advocates are often at odds with current evidence on 1) the cost of heat pumps, 2) their need for supplemental heating sources in cold climates (like New Hampshire), and 3) the GHG emissions that stem from heat-pump based heating systems. Specifically:

1) Heat pumps work well in warmer climates, but in cold climates like New Hampshire they require back-up heating sources such as oil, propane, gas, wood or electric baseboard heating. This means heat pumps can be a higher-emitting and more expensive way to heat homes and businesses for most New Hampshire residents, compared to using a natural gas heating system. As noted in studies by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, “[i]n moderately cold states (as far north as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) … life-cycle costs for gas furnaces in existing homes will be lower than for heat pumps,” and that in cold climates heat pumps “should target existing homes that use electricity, propane or heating oil as their space heating fuel (not utility natural gas).”

2) Many assume that heat pumps would operate on renewable energy; but in New England natural gas is the dominant source for electricity generation on the margin – not renewable energy – and as the regional power system operator has pointed out, this will be true for wellover a decade – even assuming states are successful in developing major amounts of new renewable energy projects.

3) Methane is emitted in producing and moving natural gas to homes, but this is also true for the natural gas needed for electricity generation used to power heat pumps, and in extracting and moving other fossil fuels (e.g., home heating oil) for customers using those fuels for direct or supplemental heating. Heat pumps likely would not reduce the amount of upstream methane emissions caused by heating homes and businesses in New Hampshire.

To state the obvious, reliably meeting the heating needs of New Hampshire’s residents and businesses is not optional – this is an essential service that must be met to avoid adverse public health and safety consequences that would result from a lack of heat, hot water and cooking fuel. And it comes at significant expense – the cost of energy used to heat a home represents a significant portion of most residents’ income, particularly for lower-income customers.

I hope in the future we are able to reliably generate electricity without burning fossil fuels, and that heat pump technology (or an alternative heating technology) evolves to the point it becomes the lowest-cost and lowest-emission option for New Hampshire residents. But we will not be there in New Hampshire with heat pumps any time soon. Meanwhile, converting customers who currently heat with oil or propane – the largest group of homes and businesses in New Hampshire – to efficient natural gas systems can deliver immediate and meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Preventing the upgrade of local natural gas delivery systems (like the project proposed by Liberty) based on a hope for ubiquitous heat pumps is simply premature, and would be bad public policy from reliability, economic and climate change perspectives.

(Paul Hibbard is a principal with Boston-based Analysis Group Inc. and is former chairman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.)

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