A heat pump surrounded by snow.
An electric air-source heat pump. Credit: Ken Paulman / Energy News Network

Massachusetts’ network of vetted and trained heat pump installers is emerging as an essential asset for achieving the state’s ambitious heating electrification goals. 

Since its launch in early 2022, the network has enrolled nearly 850 contractors who completed more than 18,000 heat pump installations last year, more than doubling the numbers from the previous year. Still, adoption will need to accelerate to reach the state’s decarbonization goals.

“Massachusetts has aggressive climate goals,” said Melanie Coen, program strategist with National Grid, one of the utilities that runs the network. “Heating electrification is one of the most impactful ways customers can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and their carbon footprint.”

Electrifying building heating and cooling — which are responsible for nearly 30% of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions — is a key element in the state’s strategy for going carbon-neutral by 2050. It is also, however, a significant challenge: Nearly 80% of the state’s homes are heated with some form of fossil fuel, and homeowners traditionally don’t replace their heating until the current system breaks down. 

When the possibility of heat pumps does arise, some are daunted by the upfront cost or the complexities of choosing the right equipment. At the same time, shortages of equipment and qualified contractors have made it even more difficult for homeowners to make the switch.

The result has been slow adoption of heat pumps in Massachusetts, despite financial incentives offered by the state and rising concern about the climate crisis. In 2021, roughly 7,100 heat pumps were installed in the state, well short of the annual target of 100,000 laid out in the state’s decarbonization strategy.  

Helping customers and contractors

The Heat Pump Installer Network, a program of energy efficiency organization Mass Save, is an effort to address these circumstances by encouraging more contractors to pursue training in heat pump technology and installation, while also making it easier for homeowners to find qualified workers. 

“We need to support our customers — we want to make sure they are receiving the highest quality installations and the highest quality customer service,” said Erin Engelkemeyer, supervisor for energy efficiency at Eversource, the other major utility behind the program. 

Contractors who sign up for the program must meet minimum eligibility standards including licensure in a relevant trade, basic installation training, and insurance coverage. Once enrolled, they must complete ongoing training courses in cold-climate system sizing and design through both heat pump manufacturers and Mass Save. 

Once enrolled in the program, contractors will be listed in the Mass Save database. Since the beginning of 2023, homeowners have been required to use a member of the installer network for their heat pump projects in order to receive a rebate from Mass Save. With over 800 contractors in the network, planners feel comfortable that there will be enough installers available to meet demand, though they are also pushing to double the size of the network by the end of the year. 

Contractors will also be eligible for expedited rebate processing, which benefits both customers and contractors. For example, if a contractor installs 10 systems in a month, each eligible for a $10,000 incentive, the business would have to tie up $100,000 of its own cash to lower the upfront costs for customers. With an expedited rebate process, the money is returned much more quickly, making a vital difference for a small business, said Jonathan Neves, chief executive at heat pump installation company Green Energy Mechanical. 

“Being able to reduce that time is critical,” he said. 

Beyond the box

The network is very promising because it doesn’t just offer incentives for buying a certain system: It creates conditions that make it easier to connect customers with the technology, said David Lis, director of technology and market solutions for the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership.

“It is clearly a big need and a role [Mass Save] should be playing,” he said. “It’s definitely not enough just to incentivize the box that’s going on the side of the house.” 

The training required for participation in the installer network might also help encourage greater adoption of heat pumps in subtler ways, by dispelling some of the myths that surround heat pumps, said Xavier Walter of the Building Performance Association. Many people still believe that heat pumps can not keep up with colder weather or that average home electrical systems can’t support a heat pump system — and heating professionals, plumbers, and electricians are not immune from these misconceptions, Walter said. 

“The mindset hasn’t moved at the same speed the technology has,” he said. “There’s some perceived barriers related to electrification as a whole.”

The creation of a peer group like the installer network can help improve industry-wide understanding — and acceptance — of heat pumps, Walter noted. 

At the same time, the utilities that administer Mass Save are also working with heat pump manufacturers and wholesale distributors to make sure they understand the market in Massachusetts, are accurately forecasting demand in the state, and that their products are eligible for rebates according to state guidelines. 

“It is a whole ecosystem we need to have in place to support the demand,” Engelkemeyer said.

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.