Heat pumps can help Oregonians achieve clean cooling

The state has allocated $25 million for heat pumps but it needs to do more, following the lead of California

September 2, 2022 5:30 am

With Oregon experiencing hotter summers than usual, the state needs to invest more in energy-efficient heat pumps. (Getty Images)

Extreme heat has blanketed Oregon this week, as it has in recent sweltering summers. 

To stay safe, some residents of the four in 10 Oregon households that lack air conditioning are seeking relief in community centers, shopping malls and libraries. 

But what happens when it’s time to go home? What relief do seniors or the physically-impaired have when getting out of the house is a major challenge? 

Fossil fuel pollution is increasing temperatures across the country. Every part of Oregon has experienced a hotter-than-normal summer in 2022, but due to our history of mild summers, we don’t have the cooling infrastructure in place to keep communities safe. 

We saw how deadly this can be during last year’s heat dome. According to a review of heat-related fatalities in Portland, 85% occurred in homes without air conditioning. To save lives, state leaders must provide cooling for homes that lack it — and fast. We must also recognize that adding thousands of low efficiency window AC units to Oregon homes risks straining and overloading the power grid. In some parts of the United States, space cooling accounts for more than 70% of peak residential electrical demand on extremely hot days, according to a study by the International Energy Agency.

Electric heat pumps are a better option. They cool homes during summer and heat them in winter. Their efficiency is mind-boggling: They use 1 kilowatt hour of electricity to produce up to 4 kilowatt hours of heating or cooling. Heat pumps can cut energy use in half. They also save money. In Portland, a new report commissioned by the Oregon Sierra Club found that homes with electric appliances like heat pumps save $161 annually on energy bills compared to those with gas; in Bend, it’s $192 in annual savings.

This underscores a critical point from the report’s analysis. In the next several years, Oregon can stop selling fossil fuel-powered appliances entirely and instead sell only zero-emission appliances like heat pumps. On top of savings on energy bills and reducing climate pollution, this would expand in-home cooling to hundreds of thousands of new residents. Doing this would increase electricity demand from homes and buildings by just 13% by 2050, compared to 2019 levels, according to the analysis. Our power grid can easily absorb and manage that, especially when we add more renewable energy resources.

Action is happening. In the past year, the Portland Clean Energy Fund invested in distributing thousands of heat pumps to vulnerable households across the city, which are now being installed. In the latest round of funding, the Portland City Council approved grants to install these systems in hundreds more homes with a focus on homeowners who are people of color. Many live in older homes without cooling and thus face greater health risks during heat waves. In March, state lawmakers passed  Senate Bill 1536, approving $25 million in funding for heat pumps: $10 million will go toward reimbursing 100% of the cost for environmental justice communities, and $15 million will reimburse landlords for 60% of the cost for installing cooling in their units.

These programs lower or eliminate upfront costs, which can run $12,000 on average compared to $10,000 for a traditional AC system, according to Carbon Switch. Heat pumps’ costs vary depending on the type of system that you’re installing, the age of the home and the type of heating system that’s being replaced. The new federal climate law signed by President Joe Biden further defrays upfront costs by offering thousands of dollars in rebates and tax credits for heat pumps, electric appliances, re-wiring upgrades, weatherization and many other improvements, particularly for low- to moderate-income households. 

Oregon can and should do more. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to outfit 6 million homes with heat pumps by 2030. This week, the California Legislature approved spending $1.3 billion over the next four years toward meeting that goal. A look abroad shows even more is possible. In Japan, 90% of households use heat pumps, and electricity consumption dropped by 40%. In Italy, the government pays 110% of heat pumps’ costs. 

This summer’s heat waves remind us of the extreme heat we’ll face in the future. Oregon legislators have allocated millions for heat pumps and passed laws to ensure 100% clean electricity by 2040. Now, it’s time to go bigger to ensure that even more Oregonians across the state have access to the high efficiency heating and cooling benefits of heat pumps. Lawmakers tapped the REBuilding Task Force, a 27-member group consisting of legislators, green builders, climate justice advocates and others, to deliver recommendations for the 2023 session. 

This year, Washington state became the first in the nation to require all-electric space heating and cooling systems in new commercial and large multifamily buildings, and it is currently considering applying a similar requirement for new residential construction. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the City Council is mandating cooling in all new construction starting in 2025. In California, lawmakers considered a bill that would keep temperatures in homes below a certain level. While it did not pass this year, advocates say they will work to bring it back in 2023. 

In addition to new investments that would outfit more homes with heat pumps, the REBuilding Task Force should recommend these policy options to protect Oregonians from extreme heat. It’s hard to imagine a home without a refrigerator. It should be similarly strange to picture your home without a heat pump. 

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Brian Stewart
Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is co-founder of Electrify Now, a volunteer-run advocacy group that promotes building electrification in Oregon cities through public education and work with homeowners and heating, ventilation and air conditioning professionals.