Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Paying more to heat your home?

STEVE MAIER

4th in a series

Despite the recent rises in oil and propane prices, my wife and I are not paying more to heat our home this winter. That is because we use cold-climate heat pumps. We still have an oil burner, but it hasn’t been on for over two years.

Why aren’t we paying more? Because heat pumps use electricity, and electric rates remain stable over time. Electric utilities secure long-term contracts for the power they use to generate the electricity in the grid, so they are much less affected by worldwide energy price fluctuations. Also, an important control exists because Vermont’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulates our electricity rates.

Yes, electricity prices go up over time, but they do so in slow and predictable ways. According to the Vermont Energy Action Network’s 2021 Annual Progress Report, running a heat pump cost around $15 per million BTUs  (MMBTUs) in 2010 and about $18-19/MMBTU in 2020. Electricity rates are typically steady for two to three years and then go up a few percentage points based on several factors that are reviewed and approved by the PUC.

Oil prices, on the other hand, fluctuate wildly. Between 2010 and 2020, the cost for heating with oil ranged from $17 to $40 per MMBTU based on factors largely out of our control, including global economics, politics and climate emergencies. Over the past decade, the average cost of heating with fuel oil has been significantly higher than heat pumps (the costs were about the same when oil prices were low in 2017-2018). This winter, the cost of heating with oil is approximately double the cost for heat pumps. In addition to the price differences, heat pump technology is more efficient than most oil burners at turning energy into heat, so that factors into heat-pump savings as well.

The electricity delivered to our home is also much greener than fossil fuels. There are social and environmental issues with every kind of energy that humans use, and the electricity grid is no exception. But there is no denying that the electricity that Green Mountain Power delivers to us in Addison County is much cleaner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than any fossil fuel energy. Our electricity sources in Vermont include both in-state and out-of-state renewables, Hydro-Quebec, nuclear (from New Hampshire), and a small amount (6% according to the Energy Action Network) of fossil fuels. The power mix is much cleaner than it was 10 years ago, and further changes, such as more renewables and phasing out nuclear, are planned over the next decade.

We also love our heat pumps for other reasons. Our indoor air quality is much better than when we used our forced hot-air vent system and burned a lot of wood. We breathe much easier, literally. And a huge bonus is that heat pumps also efficiently cool in the summertime, a benefit that will only grow as the climate warms.

If you are interested in heat pumps, there is a lot of good information available at Efficiency Vermont (efficiencyvermont.com); just go to the website and search for heat pumps. They have information on the different kinds of heat pumps, and which are more appropriate in different settings. They also have rebates to offer and a list of approved contractors. Heat pumps don’t work as well or save as much money in every situation, so getting a professional involved is usually a good idea.

By the way, much of the information in this article also applies to electric vehicles. We plan to devote an entire column to EVs, but here’s a teaser. While the upfront costs of EVs are still a bit higher, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that electric vehicle operating costs in rural areas like Vermont will be lower by roughly $1,500 during the first year of ownership, and over $21,000 over a 14-year lifetime of the vehicle. And once you test drive one, there is no going back!

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Steve Maier, a former member of the Vermont House, currently serves on the Middlebury Energy Committee and is a founding board member of CEAC, the Climate Economy Action Center.

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