A geothermal heat pump ventilation system.
A geothermal heat pump ventilation system. Credit: Silas Stein / AP Images

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Electric heat pumps are moving front and center in Connecticut’s energy efficiency program as the state seeks to speed adoption with a free consultation service and significant rebates.

EnergizeCT has contracted with Abode, an energy management company, to operate the consultation service and develop a statewide network of trained heat pump installers. Abode, based in Concord, Massachusetts, operates similar programs in that state that have so far resulted in the installation of close to 2,200 heat pumps in 13 communities, said Christopher Haringa, the company’s program manager.

Ratepayers can sign up for a virtual chat session with a heat pump expert on the EnergizeCT website. Since the service started in late May, Abode has conducted more than 100 consultations lasting an average of 45 minutes each, Haringa said.

“Homeowners are terrified of making the wrong decision, especially when they’re going to be spending $10,000 or more on their install,” he said. 

Eversource and United Illuminating, which run EnergizeCT, are also in the process of overhauling the program’s website to better promote heat pump technology, said Ronald Araujo, director of energy efficiency for Eversource. 

Air-source heat pumps are heating and cooling systems that run on electricity instead of fossil fuels. They move heat outside in the summer and inside in the winter. They are highly efficient and can significantly lower energy bills when paired with home weatherization. 

A previous small-scale heat pump pilot program that began in 2019 validated the customer savings from heat pumps when they displace oil and propane systems, Araujo said. 

“So we requested of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection if we could transition the pilot to a full-fledged program this year,” Araujo said. “That way we wouldn’t lose any momentum.”

Clean energy advocates have been pushing the state to put more resources into promoting heat pumps for several years. The issue appeared to gain greater urgency last year after an annual greenhouse gas inventory report showed that building emissions in the state are rising. 

The state’s latest Conservation Load and Management Plan, essentially the blueprint for EnergizeCT, specifically directs the utilities to prioritize transitioning customers to heat pump technologies. And state regulators have taken the focus off of natural gas expansion by ordering the utilities to end incentives for homeowners converting from oil to gas. 

Bernard Pelletier, vice president of the nonprofit People’s Action for Clean Energy, which promotes heat pumps at the community level, said he thinks the heat pump pilot program took far too long, but he’s impressed that the utilities have brought in Abode. An informational webinar conducted by the company last month was “literally the best presentation I have ever seen on heat pumps, from a number of standpoints,” he said. 

During that webinar, Melanie Shea, a residential decarbonization advisor for Abode, sought to dispel a common myth that heat pumps don’t perform well in extreme cold. High-performing units operate well down to -15 degrees, she said. And while they are less efficient at very low temperatures, they are still more efficient than combustion systems. 

Read more: In Maine, heat pumps are proving themselves even against extreme cold

Ratepayers can use the consultation service to first get basic information about heat pumps, and learn what questions to ask contractors. Once they have some quotes in hand, they can set up a follow-up session to help them compare system designs and prices. 

“We have to be totally agnostic when it comes to brands and contractors — we’re not here to sell you anything,” Haringa said. “We will look at the quotes objectively, and help you figure out how the performance compares between systems.”

A calculator tool on the EnergizeCT website can help homeowners figure out how much they might be able to save in energy costs by switching to heat pumps. The tool also gives a rough estimate of how much a system might cost based on house size, and how much might be available in rebates.

A single ductless heat pump costs around $5,000, including installation, according to Shea. A ducted system is at least $15,000 installed. Whole-house systems might include a combination of the two, she said. 

The available rebates are in two tiers. An instant discount is available to all utility customers when a qualified contractor purchases the equipment. A higher, mail-in rebate is only available to customers who are replacing oil or propane heating systems. 

Those rebates aren’t yet available to customers who are replacing natural gas systems because the cost savings from replacing those systems are “marginal” at this time, Eversource’s Araujo said. 

The maximum rebate per household is $15,000.

Rebates are also available for ground-source heat pump systems. Those systems operate in the same way, but utilize the earth, through an underground pipe system, to act as a heat sink in the summer and a heat source in the winter. 

Dandelion Energy, which recently opened a new facility in Windsor, has installed 92 geothermal systems in Connecticut, and another 315 are under contract, said Heather Deese, director of policy and regulatory affairs. 

Installations are expensive — a geothermal system serving a typical 2,500-square-foot home can run $40,000 to $50,000, she said. But with federal tax credits and state rebates, Dandelion tries to get the out-of-pocket cost down to $18,000 to $25,000, she said. The company also offers no-money-down financing.

“The state incentives were critical to our decision to expand into Connecticut,” Deese said. 

But she would like to see the state boost the rebates to further reduce the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and also make them available to natural gas customers and to homebuilders.

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Lisa Prevost

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.