Climate Crisis

Heat Pumps and New Fuels May Help Decarbonize R.I. Heating


This air-to-water heat pump was recently installed at a home in Jamestown, R.I. (Chris Kent)

PROVIDENCE — Expect several proposals this year that aim to curtail Rhode Island’s primary sources of greenhouse gases: transportation, heating, and power generation.

A draft of a regional plan to shrink the biggest emitter, transportation, was released Dec. 17. The multi-state Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) proposes assessing a fee on wholesale gasoline and diesel distributions to fund less-polluting modes of travel and subsidize incentives for electric vehicles. A final version of the memorandum of understating (MOU) is expected this spring. Most states will require some form of legislative approval to enact the fee-and-invest program.

Opponents are framing the climate-mitigation plan as a burdensome gas tax. The acronym TCI has become a rallying cry for what appears to be a coordinated campaign by conservative groups looking to conflate a devise issue during an election year.

Public input on the draft MOU will be accepted until Feb. 28.

Separately, a study of a fee on all fossil fuels in the state and region, including heating and jet fuel, is expected in May. This initiative also seeks to drive down carbon emissions by making low-carbon sources of fuel and energy more affordable, while returning most of the fee revenue to taxpayers and businesses.

Heating sector
Heating homes and businesses generates about 30 percent of Rhode Island’s carbon emissions. A state-led exploration of strategies to decarbonize the sector launched in December. Relying on pubic input and existing research, energy consultants will examine switching from high-polluting oil- and natural gas-fired furnaces and hot-water systems to heat pumps and carbon-neutral replacement fuels.

Heat pumps come in several forms, but in general the devices heat and cool buildings much like air conditioners, recirculating refrigerants or water with outside air or in some cases underground. The systems are powered by electricity but require much less energy than standard electric heaters, air conditioners, and natural-gas furnaces.

Heat pumps seem like a realistic technology for cutting ties with fossil fuels. They have been around for decades and are gaining popularity in Europe and Asia. Consumers have more options as a growing number of manufacturers have entered the market and the systems have become more energy efficient and affordable. New systems start at about $2,000. National Grid offers rebates of up to $600 for customers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some manufacturers offer rebates, as well. They are ideal for heating new buildings, but also work with existing oil and gas furnaces, which can serve as backup heating sources on extremely cold days. In 2018, the famed Breakers mansion in Newport installed a ground-source geothermal system.

But heat pumps are somewhat less efficient for Rhode Island’s predominately older, poorly insulated buildings. According to the Office of Energy Resources (OER), some 700 heat pumps are running in Rhode Island homes. Only about 200 systems are installed each year, but the number is increasing. State energy planners would like to increase that rate to 400 annually. A massive installation campaign, however, would be needed to meet the state goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The second, more conceptual approach to decarbonizing the heating sector, is to feed carbon-neutral fuels into the existing oil and natural-gas infrastructure. By producing hydrogen or methane from chemical reactions like anaerobic digestion and electrolysis, carbon-neutral fuels can move through pipelines already in place. Hydrogen, however, is difficult to store. And leakage is still a problem for any fuel like methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that travels through a network of aging pipes.

Other thermal options include using untapped resources to generate heat and electricity, such as the massive flows of municipal wastewater. Also getting attention are neighborhood systems, called district heating, that share heat among many buildings through pipes from a central heating source.

The key to all efforts for limiting greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, is transitioning fossil-fuel burners like cars and heaters to electric power. At the same time, the power grid must take in greater amounts of electricity from solar and wind and less from fossil-fuel plants that run on coal, oil, and natural gas.

A 2019 report by The Brattle Group, the primary consultant for Rhode Island’s heating sector decarbonization analysts, found that the current electricity capacity for the New England power grid would need to double by 2050 to achieve a carbon-neutral system, and perhaps even triple its capacity to power an electrified heating sector during annual cold snaps.

Rhode Island’s “heating sector transformation” was initiated through an executive order by Gov. Gina Raimondo last July 8. The Boston-based Brattle Group is scheduled to give a status report at a Feb. 13 public workshop. Periodic updates are expected to be offered at the monthly meetings of the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. The release of the final report is expected to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.

At a Dec. 13 meeting to kickoff the initiative, Jurgen Weiss, principal consultant for The Brattle Group, noted that heat pumps and a network of carbon-neutral fuels might have to coexist, at least at the start of the transition when fossil-fuel infrastructure is operational and still “on the books” for conventional energy companies.

“It may be really hard to replace every single heating system in the state with a heat pump by 2050. What is our fallback option?” Weiss said. “It may be for some time we have to run parallel strategies.”

Raimondo’s policy analyst, Maria Messick, said emissions reductions is top priority for the governor. The meeting, she said, was the first of many conversations to learn from the state’s energy experts.

Carol Grant, the outgoing OER commissioner, said the analysis required solutions that can be implemented quickly, but noted that any serious options must be affordable.

“How can we get to a clean, affordable, reliable, heating sector in Rhode Island and what will it take to get ourselves started on those paths now with a sense of urgency?” Grant asked.

Jonathan Schrag, deputy administrator for the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (DPUC), also stressed cost in launching a statewide transition to heat pumps and new fuels.

“They both have major questions around cost,” Schrag said. “We will not decarbonize the heating sector for free. There will be a cost. And part of the exercise we are engaged in is to find the least-cost, long-term pathway consistent with our 80 percent-plus [emission reduction] goals.”

Public comments on the heating sector decarbonization initiative can be emailed to the DPUC at [email protected]. Information about the state project can be found on the DPUC website. The DPUC wasn’t aware of the cost of the study or the funding source.


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  1. I’d like to understand heat pumps better – what is the source of the heat? Is it warmer temperatures under the ground? If it is electricity as the post suggests, why is it better than the ordinary electric heaters which I believe convert 100% of the electricity they draw to heat?

    • Heat pumps don’t make heat they move it. The hyper heat units can extract heat from very cold outside air and dump that heat energy into your home. It’s cheaper to move heat than it is to make it 😎

  2. Heat pumps work the same as air conditioners except imagine they’re reversible. In AC, imagine the outdoors and inside both start at 90…180 degrees total. The AC makes the outside air 105 and inside 75, still adds up to 180. In a domestic heat pump, imagine your house is 90 and the ground is 55, 145 total. You can make the ground 70 and your house 75, 145 total. In winter, reverse this… pretend you’re air conditioning the ground under your house and the hot side of the AC is inside your house. The ground starts at 55 and your house at 40, 95 total. The heat pump could make the ground 40 and the house 55. But that’s still cold, so you can use twice the amount of ground, so 150 total. Now make the double ground 40 and you can make the house 70, 150 total. Obviously it isn’t a perpetual motion machine, you use energy the same way an AC does, for compressors and fans (or pumps if your moving element is liquid). Compressors have come a long way and so as Art says, you can save energy doing it this way. My investigation is that the cost in heat pumps is really in drilling enough wells to affect enough ground to do the heating and cooling you need. Well drilling is super expensive so if your house is inefficient, you have to drill more wells and as the article says it quickly ceases to be cost effective. That is my read of it…nifty stuff. If I’ve got it wrong, please teach. I’ve researched both switching to a heat pump for domestic climate control and to electricity for transportation, generating it on my own roof. Though these are definitely the right things to do, they’re not cost effective (that is, the payback is over 20 years meaning the interest or opportunity cost on the money nearly doubles the cost) and we just can’t swing that. That’s where a carbon tax would come in, it could have carbon users pay a little more to cover the costs of carbon fuel that are currently externalized and the money could underwrite the adoption of low carbon tools that are the right thing in the long run. IMHO.

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