Heat Pumps to EVs:     Efficiency Vermont offers a roadmap

To meet the daunting challenge of de-carbonizing its transportation sector, Vermont needs a statewide energy market transformation machine. Starting from zero, it could take decades to build such a system to the necessary scale. Thanks to the foresight of the Vermont Legislature, however, we may not have to start from zero. We may be able to start with Efficiency Vermont.

Efficiency Vermont has been in the business of accelerating change since we were created by the Vermont Legislature nearly two decades ago. We have focused on helping Vermonters use less electricity and, more recently, less heating fuel, to lower their energy costs and in the process make their homes and business healthier, more comfortable, more valuable, and more environmentally sustainable.

Our approach to accelerating change is based on transforming markets, working up and down the supply chain from manufacturer to the end user, so that the most efficient technologies and practices rapidly move from cutting edge to commonplace. This approach is directly applicable to Vermont’s transportation challenge.

According to the Energy Action Network (EAN) 2018 Annual Report, released on March 4, transportation accounts for 43% of Vermont’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and only 5% of transportation energy use is renewable. EAN analysis concludes that by 2025, Vermont needs to add 90,000 electric vehicles (EVs) to the road, increase non-EV fleet miles per gallon by 5%, and double transit.

Those are daunting numbers considering where we’re starting. As of 2018, we had just shy of 3,000 EVs on the road. And only 19% of work commutes involved transit as of 2017. It will require market transformation on an unprecedented scale, at an unprecedented pace.

Efficiency Vermont believes we could apply our market transformation model to electric vehicles and other efficient transformation alternatives to accelerate change in the transportation sector, and help Vermont meet this challenge.

One of many examples of the efficacy of the market transformation model can be found in our work with cold climate heat.

Efficiency Vermont began working with heat pump manufacturers back in 2013, to make sure that this new technology could perform in Vermont’s extremely cold winters. We worked with distributors to build awareness of this new technology and apply discounts to encourage them to stock cold climate heat pumps at competitive prices. We worked with installers to increase their familiarity with and expertise in installing cold climate heat pumps. We raised awareness of cold climate heat pumps and provided the information consumers needed to evaluate whether purchasing one made sense for them. And we developed incentives to help reduces the price of heat pumps so they would be more competitive with less efficient alternatives.

In the space of four years, this activity resulted in growth in heat pump installations from near zero to more than 12,500 in Vermont homes and businesses, and that number continues to grow.

A heat pump and electric car charger installed on a Burlington home are powered by rooftop solar panels Photo: Julie Campoli

A heat pump and electric car charger installed on a Burlington home are powered by rooftop solar panels Photo: Julie Campoli

Our experience with heat pumps also underscores the need to provide customers with multiple options and avoid one-size-fits-all technology approaches. For example, while heat pumps have proven to be a great investment for many Vermonters, they aren’t the best fit for everyone. If a home isn’t well air-sealed and insulated, for example, a heat pump may not be able to keep up with the heating and cooling demands of the building. Furthermore, heat pumps are optimal for heating large, open-floor plans and less effective for more partitioned, multi-room homes like so much of Vermont’s older housing stock. For these customers, other solutions are needed, and Efficiency Vermont works to make sure resources are available for every customer’s situation.

The same holds true for any technology – including electric vehicles. Vermont should think bigger than electric vehicles as it considers how to de-carbonize its transportation sector. While electric vehicles could help many Vermonters de-carbonize their mobility, for others it may not be the best next step. New cars, even with incentives, are financially out reach for many. For others, disabilities make operating an automobile impossible, regardless of price. And for many rural Vermonters, electric vehicles may not have the range they require to feel comfortable relying on them for long commutes. We must be sure that no Vermonters are left behind as we drive toward important clean energy goals.

Currently, Efficiency Vermont’s scope focuses on buildings and does not include transportation. However, as the statewide energy efficiency utility with decades of experience in accelerating change in the electricity and heating sectors, we believe that Efficiency Vermont’s people and infrastructure could be easily deployed to accelerate GHG and energy cost savings in the transportation sector as well.

Efficiency Vermont will be working with the Public Utility Commission and other stakeholders later this year to define Efficiency Vermont’s performance goals for the next three-year performance period – which begins in 2021. As part of that process we will explore how we might provide support to Vermonters looking to reduce GHG across all sectors, including transportation. We are hopeful that Efficiency Vermont will be able to serve as a resource for all Vermonters as we work together to tackle the steep transportation-related climate challenges ahead.

Rebecca Foster is the Director of Efficiency Vermont, the statewide energy efficiency utility. She previously served as Director of Consulting at VEIC, the nonprofit organization that operates Efficiency Vermont under and Order of Appointment from the Vermont Public Utility Commission. Prior to joining VEIC, Rebecca directed the Consortium for Energy Efficiency’s residential sector initiatives for more than a decade, increasing efficiency standards for lighting, appliances, air conditioners, consumer electronics, windows, new and existing homes.