Top Maine Democrat tries to rein in strict heat pump rebate rules

By Billy Kobin, Bangor Daily News Staff

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers will consider rolling back strict new rules requiring Mainers to disconnect fossil fuel-burning furnaces and boilers to claim the largest heat pump incentives.

A proposal from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would “seek to find some middle ground” by removing some of the new rebate rules on installing whole-home heat pump systems in specific areas of the state based on temperatures, his spokesperson, Christine Kirby, said Monday without sharing more details on the proposal.

The idea has already been advanced to the 2024 legislative session by Jackson and a panel of fellow legislative leaders. It is squarely aimed at Efficiency Maine’s newer rebate guidelines for whole-home heat pump systems that say furnaces and boilers must be “disabled” or connected only to a generator to get the biggest rebates. 

Oil companies and Gov. Janet Mills expressed safety concerns over the disabling requirement, but Efficiency Maine’s executive director, Michael Stoddard, said experts had not told the agency of any issues and the change came due to homeowners and installers realizing the electric devices can fully heat homes despite Maine’s cold temperatures.

The quasi-state agency’s increased incentives began with whole-home heat pump projects completed on or after Sept. 18. At the state level, they are up to $8,000 for low-income residents, up to $6,000 for moderate-income customers and up to $4,000 for all residents. 

While Jackson supports heat pumps and thinks Efficiency Maine, the quasi-state agency that runs energy savings programs, “does a great job,” he is worried the rules will dissuade people in northern Maine from making the switch and could endanger them. Last February, wind chills in Jackson’s district reached between 50 and 60 degrees below zero.

Stoddard said Nov. 20 he could not comment on Jackson’s proposal without more specifics and language available, but he reiterated Efficiency Maine is not requiring residents to give up their backup heating source.

“It should be turned off, but it’s there if they need it,” Stoddard said.

Stoddard also said Efficiency Maine researched the usage of heat pumps throughout the state and is “confident about their reliability,” so the agency would not have advanced a significant push if we didn’t think the technology available today was not capable.”

Stoddard noted Efficiency Maine completed a study about two years ago that found about 20 percent of all new home construction in Maine featured no furnaces or boilers but instead had heat pumps and other all-electric systems.

While Jackson’s proposal is the main bill dealing with the heat pump rebate rules, Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, who serves on the Legislature’s energy committee, said he would prefer to see the disconnection language get removed altogether.

Besides the state rebates, $2,000 federal tax credits are available for both partial- and whole-home heat pump systems. The average homeowner spends $5,500 to install a heat pump, which can save about $1,000 annually over fossil fuel-burning heaters.

More than 65 Mainers representing an “even mix” of low, moderate and all income levels have so far taken advantage of the rebates under the new rules, Stoddard said.

The rebate debate is playing out in a state that has long led the nation in heating oil dependence, with more than half of Maine homes using it as the primary warming source. The Mills administration has set ambitious goals for heat pump adoption, including having 115,000 homes use whole-home heat pump systems by 2030.

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