States announce major push to get to 20 million installed heat pumps, a cleaner alternative to gas furnaces that also provide AC

Matt Johnson, 38, an HVAC technician with ReVision Energy, a New England company specializing in solar energy and electric heat pump installations, works on removing all moisture from the line set of an newly installed electric heat pump on a home in Windham, Maine on Thursday, January 19, 2023. Improved energy efficiency with heat pump technology and new tax incentives have contributed to the popularity of heat pumps in New England, as many homeowners are facing increased costs of heating their homes with oil, propane and other fossil fuels.
The Washington Post | The Washington Post | Getty Images

A coalition of 25 state governors announced a major push to reach 20 million deployed heat pumps by 2030, they said in New York City on Thursday.

That would represent a quadrupling of the 4.8 million heat pumps that were installed in the United States in 2020, according to a analysis of the announcement from RMI, independent, non-partisan, nonprofit clean energy think tank.

Heat pumps are energy efficient replacements for fossil fuel powered furnaces and air conditioners. They use electricity to transfer heat, as opposed to generate heat, and they can either heat a building when it is cold outside or cool a building when it is hot outside.

Compared to a gas boiler, heat pumps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% when operating on emissions-intensive electricity and as much as 80% compared when operating on cleaner electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. The operation of buildings accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and 26% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IEA.

Heat pumps can also save consumers money — around $300 a year in the United States, according to the IEA. In places like Europe, where gas prices are higher, having a heat pump can save customers around $900 a year, the IEA says.

The commitment to reach a total of 20 million heat pumps installed by 2030 comes from a bipartisan group of governors that represent 60% of the U.S. economy and 55% of the U.S. population and which collectively call themselves the U.S. Climate Alliance. The governors of Washington, New York, and California started the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2017.

“Look, I think all Americans have certain rights, among those rights are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of heat pumps,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said on Thursday.

“And the reason this is so important to Americans is pretty simple: We want to be warm in the winter. And we want to be cool in the summer. And we want to prevent the climate from collapsing all year long,” Inslee said. “And there is no greater invention in human history to do those three things than a heat pump, not only because it can keep you warm in the winter, but it can keep you cool in the summer.”

Inslee said this greatest invention is “kind of unfortunately named” because while it is called a heat pump, it has can both heat cold spaces and cool warm spaces.

And “right now people are having as much trouble staying cool in the summer as they are staying warm in the winter,” Inslee said. “We’re starting to need air conditioning in Seattle, Washington. That means we got a problem.”

Indeed, from June 26 to July 2, 2021, Seattle had an “unprecedented” heat wave during which 100 people died from the heat, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

About 10% of households in the United States do not have air conditioning, and it’s especially prevalent in disadvantaged communities, according to a 2022 report from the Brookings Institution. To that end, 40% of the benefits of Thursday’s announcement will go to disadvantaged communities, the governors said.

“I’m so cognizant of the fact that we are the first generation to really feel the effects of climate change,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said on Thursday. “We’re not talking about an impending threat. We’re talking about something that is in the here, and now.”

At this point, putting a gas furnace in a new dwelling is the equivalent of building a stable to house your horse instead of a garage to house your car, Inslee said.

“Gas is an old, antiquated, dirty, dangerous product,” Inslee said. “Climate change fundamentally is a fossil fuel problem. The source of climate change is fossil fuels. The source of climate change in our homes and offices is gas hookups, those gas hookups need to stop, and they need to stop today.”

“Whether it’s Georgia or it’s Maine, whether it’s the east coast or the west, this is a technology that works, and it works to reduce costs in a very aggressive way,” White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi said on Thursday. About half of what a household spends on energy goes towards heating and cooling, Zaidi said.

States in the U.S. Climate Alliance will pay for these heat pump installations with a combination of financial incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and with policy efforts in each individual state that is part of the coalition.

Maine, for example, has been remarkably successful in installing heat pumps with its own legislative action.