A sign: "Town of Kennebunkport, Incorporated 1653."
Kennebunkport recently built a new recreation building heated almost entirely by heat pumps. A new bonus rebate could help other small towns in Maine install similar electric heat pumps in eligible municipal buildings. Credit: Chris Pesotski / Creative Commons

Efficiency Maine is offering extra funding to smaller municipalities to pay for heat pump installations.

Correction: Kennebunkport, Maine, has an estimated population of 3,639, according to the U.S. Census. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect number.

As Maine looks to accelerate its transition to electric heat pumps, a new promotion aims to help the state’s small towns begin to make the switch.

Since 2013, the state’s efficiency utility, Efficiency Maine, has paid out rebates for more than 60,000 heat pumps, typically between $500 and $1,600 per installation. The new program will offer an additional $1,000 per rebate to municipalities with 4,000 or fewer residents for installations in eligible town buildings.

Heat pumps are essentially air conditioners that can run in reverse during the winter. Variations include ductless “mini-split” systems, which are installed on an exterior wall to heat or cool a single space, or “whole house” systems that can replace a central air conditioner and boiler for most of the year.

Transitioning to cleaner heating and cooling systems is among the highest priorities in the state’s new climate plan, with a target of installing at least 100,000 new heat pumps by 2025. About 60% of Maine households rely on heating oil as their primary heating source — the highest percentage in the country.

The bonus for small-town municipal buildings, which comes from a partnership with the Nature Conservancy, means the incentive will cover about three-quarters the cost of each heat pump and installation. The promotion will fund 100 heat pumps. Applicants can get money for up to three heat pumps, all of which must be installed by June 1.  

Efficiency Maine’s executive director, Michael Stoddard, said the agency is targeting small towns in part because of the budget challenges many of them face from the pandemic, as well as having aging, inefficient boilers.

“They have a lot of antiquated heating systems and would benefit from retrofitting in new high-performance cold climate heat pumps,” Stoddard said.

Officials also hope the timing of the promotion, which runs through March, will increase business for contractors, who have been dealt a blow during the pandemic. This time of year is typically slower for heating contractors, Stoddard said, “so we will … try to give the market a little boost in that period.”

The Nature Conservancy has typically worked with towns on land conservation and river restoration projects, but recently it’s branched out to energy efficiency. The organization collaborated with Efficiency Maine in 2019 on an LED lighting promotion for small municipalities, in which about 30 towns participated.

“We’ve had a history of working with municipalities, and we wanted to see if we could apply that framework to our emissions reduction and climate action work,” said Rob Wood, director of government relations and climate policy for Maine at the Nature Conservancy. “We want to help demonstrate what’s possible for rural communities and demonstrate the benefits of moving to a low-carbon future.” 

Wood said he also hopes that getting the technology into municipal buildings will make it more visible to residents to spur their interest.

While heat pumps are growing in popularity and many efficiency experts and policymakers agree building electrification will be important going forward, the technology isn’t widespread yet. The upfront cost of retrofits, as well as reliability concerns, often factor into people’s decisions to invest.

Heat pumps have become more reliable in cold climates, but customers often choose to have a backup generation source for extremely cold temperatures, making the economic case slightly harder. But as with other fossil fuel alternatives, advocates say the long-term savings of using higher-efficiency appliances make them the more cost-effective option.

“If I was putting together a municipal building, and if the push was to heat it and cool it solely with heat pump technology, then I would be factoring in a backup generator as well” when considering cost, said Werner Gilliam, director of planning and development in the town government of Kennebunkport.

As of 2019, the town had an estimated population of about 3,600, which would make it eligible for upgrades under the new program. Gilliam, who oversees the town hall, isn’t planning to take part in this round since he anticipates Kennebunkport will eventually need a new town hall.

He’s open to installing heat pumps when he thinks it’s feasible, but it’s not a simple decision. The town recently built a new recreation building, and it’s heated almost entirely by heat pumps (some electric baseboards act as a backup if needed). But Gilliam said the grid in that part of town is more reliable, and if power did go down, it’s not an essential facility.

The fire department also got some mini-split heat pumps in its meeting room, which he said made it more comfortable. But that job didn’t involve any retrofitting, which adds challenges, especially if it involves more than one room.

“I think at the end of the day we’ll always try to take a more practical and holistic look at it as well, and not just jump on the bandwagon because that’s the cool thing to do,” Gilliam said. “I think they’re another good piece of tech to have.”

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.