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Maine's cold snap didn't knock out heat pumps. But can they withstand fossil fuel industry pressure?

A condenser sits on the roof during the installation of a heat pump in an 80-year-old rowhouse Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in northwest Denver.
David Zalubowski
A condenser sits on the roof during the installation of a heat pump in an 80-year-old rowhouse Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in northwest Denver.

As the state of Maine works to promote heat pumps as climate friendly alternatives to heating oil and propane, there is some skepticism about their performance in cold weather.

During the recent cold snap, Maine temperatures plunged well below zero and a raking wind put heating systems to the test. Pipes froze and insurers fielded calls from anxious homeowners. So how did all those new heat pumps fare?

“We have 1,500 heat pumps in the field, and we did not get a single call of a heat pump shutting off during this event," says heat pump installer Josh Oxley, of SolarLogix in Belfast.

Oxley says heat pumps work hard in extreme conditions. But they still crank out heat, especially the newer generation of so-called hyper-heat models. He says he even used a thermometer to check the air coming out of his heat pump during the cold snap.

"At my personal residence, I measured 106 degrees coming out of our heat pump when it was -19 F outside," he says.

“It was a great test case, and they came through with flying colors,” says Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine.

“In certain homes where we’ve been watching very closely the effects of switching the entire home to heat pumps and removing the old central heating system, we checked in with each of those homeowners individually to see how it was going," Stoddard says. "And they all reported that the heat pumps continued to work, and kept them comfortable in the home.”

Stoddard says switching from fossil fuels such as home heating oil, kerosene or propane to heat pumps is a key strategy in implementing the state climate plan, because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving money for homeowners.

But if you visit the website MaineEnergyFacts.com, you’ll read statements like this:

“Heat pumps are simply not ideal for climates like ours;” and heat pumps are “no greener than the furnace in your basement.”

The website belongs to the Maine Energy Marketers Association, a consortium of oil, propane and gas providers that also includes most of Maine’s convenience stores.

Charlie Spatz works for the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that monitors the fossil fuel industry. He says the Maine website is part of a national campaign.

“So we’ve uncovered thousands of records from federally sanctioned trade associations called the Propane Research and Education Council as well as the National Oilheat Research Alliance, which are running a concerted effort to misinform consumers that heat pumps are not effective in cold climates," Spatz says, "Which is far from the truth.”

Spatz says the Maine Energy Facts page is funded by the National Oilheat Research Alliance.

“The advice coming from groups like the Maine Energy Marketers, and the propane industry, and the rest of the fossil fuel economy in Maine, they're promoting a message that is in direct contradiction to what the Mills administration is pushing, and frankly what most experts in the climate community and the energy community are suggesting to consumers, which is to move to much more efficient heat pumps," he says.

Charlie Summers, the president and CEO of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, says he’s not campaigning against heat pumps, despite the messages on the website.

“Maine Energy Marketers Association fully supports heat pumps. In fact my members sell, install and service heat pumps," he says. “And my school, which is the Maine Technical Education Center, part of MEMA, we teach heat pump installation and service, and it’s one of our most well-attended courses.”

Summers agrees that heat pumps performed well in the recent cold, but he wouldn't comment on the contrast between his vocal support for heat pumps and the skepticism published on his website.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.