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An Innovative Financing Model Is Ensuring Everyone Can Afford a Heat Pump

(Bloomberg) —

The world just suffered through the hottest October on record amid a year of unprecedented heat. That includes searing temperatures in the Pacific Northwest this past summer. While not as extreme as 2021, when a historic heat wave blanketed the region and killed over 800, record-breaking warmth once again struck the region where air conditioning isn’t yet common. 

There’s worse in store as climate change exacerbates heat waves. But Washington state resident Celia Schorr is ready whenever the mercury rises. She recently had a heat pump installed through an innovative financing program that could serve as a model to other communities where the four- or five-figure installation costs are out of reach. 

Heat pumps can move heat in and out of the home to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They’re generally more efficient than gas-burning furnaces and air conditioners, making them a key tool in decarbonizing homes and lowering energy bills.

President Joe Biden bet big on the technology when he signed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. The law includes billions in generous tax credits and rebates for heat pumps, but the credit for them isn’t upfront. Many households still need to cover installation costs if they want to upgrade their air conditioner or gas heater — and a heat pump doesn’t come cheap. Installing one can cost a household anywhere from $3,500 to $20,000 depending on a home’s size. The price tag makes the machines unobtainable for many low-income communities, and the IRA’s eventual point-of-sale rebates will still vary by state when they become available. The barriers only worsen for rural areas that lack robust energy infrastructure, like Whidbey Island where Schorr lives.

Schorr, 63, couldn’t afford the technology on her own. Luckily, she didn’t have to. Kicking Gas, a coalition of six Whidbey Island groups inspired by the 2019 youth climate strikes, is bringing low-cost heat pumps to the community by covering a chunk of the cost and offering low-interest microloans for the rest. Since October 2022, the group has subsidized and installed 117 heat pumps. The project, made possible by a $1 million grant from Washington State University, aims to decarbonize Whidbey Island by making the transition away from fossil fuels affordable and accessible to everyone. 

“[Heat pumps] are a dream for a lot of folks, and this makes it possible,” said Natalie Lubsen, campaign manager for Kicking Gas.

The program runs on an innovative and untraditional cooperative finance model where Kicking Gas pays for 20% to 50% of the installation costs for eligible households while offering low-interest microloans to cover the rest. Kicking Gas funds the loans and subsidies through the Washington State University grant and online donations. Eventually, the interest accrued from borrowers will help the group provide more subsidies or fund future projects, such as low-cost electric stove installations. 

The group’s goal isn’t profit — it’s creating a just transition that ensures every member of the local community has a chance to benefit from decarbonization. 

“[Kicking Gas is] of the community, by the community, with community members in it and people that you could see at your local grocery store,” said Derek Hoshiko, a Whidbey Island resident and the coalition’s campaign director. 

Burning fossil fuels has sent the global average temperature skyrocketing. The planet has warmed about 2.2F (1.2C) since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a rise that has made extreme heat waves more likely. Carbon pollution made the unprecedented heat wave that gripped the Pacific Northwest in 2021 150 times more likely, according to a rapid attribution study.

Schorr remembers the historic heat well. She kept two fans going, set ice packs on her neck and put her feet in a bowl of ice water to stay cool. This year, though, all she had to do was turn on her heat pump to stay cool. During a summer when nearly half of the world’s population experienced at least 30 days of extreme heat fueled by climate change, the reprieve has been a major relief.

“It’s fantastic,” Schorr said.

Heat pumps don’t just make heating and cooling easier, they also cut the very carbon pollution that is making extreme heat more intense. The switch from propane heaters to heat pumps can cut a household’s annual carbon emissions by 6.3 tons, according to one analysis from Rewiring America, a nonprofit dedicated to electrifying homes across the U.S. 

“In order to address the climate crisis, we have to completely stop burning fossil fuels as fast as we can,” said Cora Wyent, director of research at Rewiring America.

In Whidbey Island, propane is what many households use to heat their homes during the winter because the island lacks a gas utility. 

Schorr believes her propane heater was worsening her asthma. Before the heat pump was installed, she found herself using her emergency inhaler two or three times a day during cold winter months. Gas heaters can release pollutants that can irritate a person’s respiratory system. Within a week of the heat pump’s installation, Schorr hardly needed her inhaler at all. 

“[Heat pumps make] an immediate real difference not only in people’s lives — and I’m an example of that — but also for the environment,” said Schorr, who calls herself an environmental activist.

Wider access to such technology can also help prevent deaths when temperatures rise. “Without doubt, getting people into cooler spaces is going to save lives,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University who researches extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest. Whether people can pay to cool their own spaces is another issue. “It really comes down to affordability,” he added.

Kicking Gas showcases a creative, non-extractive model to get technologies that are expensive but nevertheless crucial to decarbonization into households of all stripes faster. Households at any income level can apply for a 20% subsidy under the program. Anyone who makes less than 150% of the region’s median income, however, is eligible for a 50% subsidy. For a single-person household, the median income is roughly $94,000 a year. For a family of four, that number is closer to $134,000. 

Heat pumps can reduce monthly energy bills, too, because they don’t generate heat — they only move it around. Other types of heaters require more energy to burn gas or generate heat using electricity, an often inefficient process. 

“Even when it’s cold outside, heat pumps are still able to harvest heat from that outside air and move it inside,” Wyent said. “It takes some energy to actually move that heat from one place to another, but that’s the only thing they’re spending energy on.”

Rewiring America found that homes using propane like Schorr’s can save $849 a year by switching to a heat pump, while homes using electric resistance can save $780. Ian Jackson, another resident on Whidbey Island who purchased a heat pump through Kicking Gas in February, used to have only one heating option during the winter: an electric system that was so costly, he chose to keep it off during cold months rather than rack up a high utility bill.

“It’s revolutionary to be able to offer folks something that’s high quality and low cost and impacts human health in the ways in which it does,” Jackson said. 

Many low-income households are struggling to pay for basic necessities, let alone the high costs of electrifying their homes. That makes creative financing paramount to removing the barriers to entry. Jackson spends only about $50 a month to pay off his $1,653 microloan for the heat pump. The remaining $2,653 was covered by Kicking Gas. 

The coalition provides microloans through Salish Sea Cooperative Finance, a cooperative where anyone who takes out a loan becomes a member-owner. Heat pump owners who secured financing this way have voting power over annual decisions on how the cooperative invests its profits. 

“They have ownership in this model,” said Erika Lundahl, campaign manager for Kicking Gas. “Our members have gotten excited about the prospect of being a part of something that they own and making decisions about how we might expand from heat pumps to solar arrays or electric stoves or electric water heaters.”

Cooperatives are especially needed in rural areas where for-profit companies and institutions may be less interested in investing because they won’t make as much money or where residents can’t afford their services. This attitude toward rural communities is why they’re less likely to have access to internet services or — as seen on Whidbey Island — energy. Cooperatives can fill the gap by developing novel approaches for rural communities with their input. After all, meeting state and national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets will require everyone’s participation. 

“That’s the reason why these collaborations could be important and necessary,” explained Roberta Severson, director of Cornell University’s Cooperative Enterprise Program. 

She found Kicking Gas’s model to be original and pioneering compared to other cooperatives that currently exist because of the many partners involved. There’s potential for other municipalities to replicate the model because of how it revolves around community partners, she said. The challenges with a model like this, however, arise around capacity: Is every partner committed long term? Can small community groups secure adequate funding? Will their volunteer pool eventually run out?

“There’s the short term of making these transitions, which is good and appropriate, but there’s this longer term of how do you sustain these transitions?” Severson said. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is set to backstop efforts like Kicking Gas, but states will have to figure out how to get more money into people’s pockets — ideally at the point of sale as Kicking Gas has done. Figuring these processes out will take time.

Kicking Gas is still ironing out some details, too. It’s working to secure further funding so it can keep its heat pump program going. In the meantime, it’s answering calls and questions from members and customers lining up for heat pumps. Kicking Gas’s message to them is clear: Heat pumps won’t only keep their home cozy — they can meaningfully contribute to protecting the climate and, with that, lives in the community.

(Updates first paragraph to include new information about the hottest October on record.)

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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