Connecting state and local government leaders
The signatories say the agreement’s focus on building emissions will signal to manufacturers that there will be a robust market for heat pumps in the coming years.
Officials from nine states agreed Wednesday to work to make electric heat pumps—rather than natural gas-burning furnaces and water heaters—the most popular choice in new buildings by 2030.
Leaders from the predominantly liberal states set informal goals of installing zero-emissions heat pumps in 65% of new residential construction in six years. Their target by 2040 would be 90%. Several manufacturers—including many that currently make furnaces, air conditioners and heat pumps—voiced support for the effort.
The state officials also committed to making the buildings of their own state governments run on zero-emission electricity.
“Heat pumps and building electrification are the future for healthier homes and a thriving green economy,” said Serena McIlwain, Maryland’s environmental secretary, in a statement. “This multistate partnership will help Maryland meet its ambitious climate goals and strengthen a coalition of states for cleaner air and better health outcomes.”
Terry Gray, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, noted that residential heating accounted for 20% of his state’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Accelerating the transition to zero-emission buildings is an essential step in reducing these harmful emissions that worsen climate change,” he said in a statement. Gray added that the agreement “will advance green energy development and … help improve the air quality that our residents breathe every day.”
Officials from California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island signed the memorandum of understanding. All of those states have committed to significantly reducing their greenhouse gas pollution by 2050 or sooner, in order to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Specifically targeting building emissions is an important step to reaching those goals, said Emily Levin, senior policy advisor with the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, known as NESCAUM, which organized the effort.
“States simply aren’t going to be able to achieve their energy and climate goals if they don't address the building sector,” she told Route Fifty. “Buildings are a more significant contributor than people realize of greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., 35% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings, and emissions from buildings have actually increased in recent years.”
Levin said the coordinated effort will signal to manufacturers that there will be demand for more heat pumps. A group including Carrier, Ikea, Johnson Controls, Siemens and Sierra Nevada backed the effort.
“Bold action by state leaders is urgently needed to send clear, long-term economic signals to manufacturers, developers, building and business owners, and residents alike,” the manufacturers wrote in a statement. “We strongly support the execution of multistate collaborative approaches to develop and implement market-enabling initiatives that unlock the long-term savings, and climate and clean air benefits of building decarbonization.”
But state officials need to move quickly if they want to replace fossil-fuel systems with electric ones in time to meet the 2050 deadline, Levin said. Heating and cooling systems can last 10-20 years, meaning the devices that customers buy in the next few years could still be in service as the target date approaches.
One of the most immediate goals of the collaboration is to help states gather data on what kind of heating and cooling systems are being installed in homes, Levin said. That information is currently hard to come by, but officials believe that heat pumps make up about 25% of the new systems being sold in the participating states.
The popularity of heat pumps varies widely from state to state, and it depends on everything from the weather to the nearby availability of natural gas. But as they have become better able to handle colder environments, they have gained traction. The environmental benefits of electric appliances have increased, too, as the country becomes less dependent on coal and natural gas to produce electricity.
Heat pumps are replacing even dirtier forms of fuel, like heating oil. In Maine, 56% of homes use heating oil, compared to 4% nationally. Gov. Janet Mills has pushed Mainers to adopt the cleaner heat pumps instead, using rebates as incentives. The governor reached a goal of converting 100,000 homes from heating oil to heat pumps last summer, and she wants another 175,000 installed by 2027.
Replacing furnaces and water heaters with heat pumps could also decrease air pollution that causes smog and leads to asthma, heart attacks and other health problems in humans. In the nine states that participated in the MOU, those heat sources produced 138,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 6,000 tons of fine particulate matter every year. That’s more than the nitrogen oxide pollution that comes from the country’s power plants.
“These issues are worse in areas that are dense with buildings, combusting fossil fuels, which tend to be cities,” Levin said. “We found that communities of color are actually disproportionately impacted by the pollution from buildings. So states are increasingly attuned to these air pollution outcomes from buildings and seeking strategies to address that pollution.”.
Levin said she hopes that the current effort won’t produce the kind of cultural backlash that efforts to phase out gas-powered stoves sparked in recent years. The MOU doesn’t address gas stoves at all.
“The reason why we’re not tackling stoves with this MOU is that we’re focused on the largest contributors to outdoor air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Heating systems and hot water systems are by far the larger contributors to air pollution and greenhouse gas impacts,” she said. “We’re not really tackling the issue of gas bans or eliminating choices through the MOU. It’s all about supporting market development.”
The MOU does address air conditioners, though. Levin said heat pumps—which can both heat and cool a building—are more efficient than air conditioners. But it also makes sense to replace them with heat pumps because they can take the place of furnaces at the same time, Levin said.
Another component of the MOU encourages states to design new buildings that also produce zero emissions. “When the states are asking their residents and building owners to make this transition to heat pumps,” Levin said, “they recognize that they should also be leading by example.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.