Counting on an Electric Future

Pictured Above: Heat pumps will be the technology driving electric homes. (EPA Image) 

As we embark down the path of a new year, the prospects are looking bright for people looking to upgrade to more energy-efficient homes. 

Now is a great time to take a close look at retiring your inefficient home appliances and energy systems, especially in light of new federal incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act that go into effect this year.

Southampton and East Hampton towns are working to bring more public awareness to these incentives through their Energize East Hampton and Sustainable Southampton initiatives.

Energize East Hampton outlined some of the new solutions in a Dec. 7, 2022 seminar on “Green Heating & Cooling,” which is also available to view on LTV’s YouTube channel, while Southampton is highlighting a demonstration project known as the “Climate Barn” in Sagaponack, designed to run entirely on electricity, most of which is produced by rooftop solar panels.

The goal behind electrification of buildings is to develop high-efficiency heating and cooling systems and appliances, giving individual homeowners something concrete they can do to reduce their carbon footprint while utilities work to make the sources of electricity more sustainable.

“The renewable portion of our electric grid now is 30 percent,” said Renewable Energy Long Island Executive Director Gordian Raacke at the Dec. 7 forum. “Seventy percent comes from dirty fossil and nuclear fuel. That’s the status quo. We’ve made some progress, but we’ve gotta do a whole lot more.”

He added that New York State, through its 2019 Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act, will require the 70 percent of the electricity used in the grid to be from renewable sources by 2030.

“That is enshrined in law. It’s just a few years from now — around the corner,” he said. “Our state agency has already procured projects to reach that goal — they are already in the pipeline. We know we’re going to get there.”

But as of today, households across the East End and around the country still rely on delivery of fuel oil or propane, or on a natural gas hookup from their street, to feed the systems in their homes. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 13 percent of emissions in this country came from commercial and residential buildings in 2020, while 27 percent of emissions came from transportation. Twenty-five percent came from electric power, 24 percent came from industry and 11 percent from agriculture. 

What this means for each of us is that our personal choices — either when buying a car or a new clothes dryer or a new home heating system — have a big impact on our carbon future.

Common sources of air leaks into a home can reduce its efficiency greatly — reLI image, data from U.S. EPA.

While New York State and PSEG-Long Island already have rebates and tax incentives in place for upgrading outdated appliances, more rebates and tax credits are in store due to the Inflation Reduction Act, for everything from upgrading electric panels to installing numerous appliances that run on heat pump technology, including clothes dryers and water heaters, as well as electric vehicle charging stations. 

We’re all familiar with heat pump, whether we know it or not — our refrigerators are a heat pump, which moves hot or cold air from where it is naturally in the environment to where it is desired. In the case of the refrigerator, it moves cold air into the fridge and moves hot air out of the fridge.

The Inflation Reduction Act incentives, which include upfront, point-of-sale discounts and tax credits, can be as much as $14,000 in upfront discounts and several thousand dollars in tax credits, with more discounts available to people with lower incomes.

Rewiring America’s website, rewiringamerica.org, is filled with information on these incentives, which can be found under the “IRA Savings Calculator” tab in their homepage menu. Many of the incentives won’t be introduced until mid-2023, and the IRS is still formulating how they will be distributed, so you may have to check back later for more detailed information.

While many people in the northeast have heard that heat pumps don’t work in colder temperatures, advances in compressor technology in recent years have made these systems more competitive, both in terms of cost and in terms of performance, with traditional furnaces here.

“Contractors are used to conventional and reliable gas-based equipment, and they’re not necessarily excited about learning new tricks and new technology,” said Brian Stewart of Electrify Now, a speaker at the East Hampton forum. “You can hear misinformation from so-called HVAC experts very commonly — that heat pumps don’t work here, that you need a gas backup and they’re not as comfortable. They’re not embracing these changes, which are so important.”

But, he said, heat pumps are now significantly outselling gas furnaces, and the National Association of Homebuilders has embraced a heat pump certification course he’s developed for the organization.

“Heat pumps have been around on Long Island since the 1980s,” said Jay Best of Green Team LI, an energy efficiency contractor on Long Island. “Systems used in the northeast are designed to run down to below zero. That’s more than adequate on Long Island, where the design temperature is about 15 degrees. If they’re properly sized, they can really handle pretty much anything mother nature is going to throw at them in terms of temperature. And today’s heat pumps are very, very efficient air conditioning systems.”

There are numerous types of heat pump technology — the most efficient is a geothermal system, which moves water from underground through the heating and cooling system within the house. Because the temperature below the frost line remains consistently in the mid-50s, this system provides a consistent source of water that is hotter than the ambient air in winter, and cooler than the ambient air in summer. 

But geothermal systems do involve greater up-front cost, as well as site design considerations because they require excavation. 

Air-source heat pumps, which Mr. Best installs, are becoming quite common on Long Island. They include what’s known as mini-split, or ductless systems, with a compressor/condenser outside and an indoor air handler, connected by a conduit that goes through the wall. While mini-split systems work best for large open floor plans, they can pose trouble for houses with many small rooms, which would be better served by a ducted system. 

Because the ambient air temperate outside of homes is not as stable as the temperature underground, air-source heat pumps use more electricity to heat the air when it is colder outside, and can cost more than geothermal systems to operate when it is very cold.

Lena Tabori, a member of East Hampton’s Energy and Sustainability Committee, said she had contacted Green Team LI about making her 1,400-square-foot house, which was built in 1920, more energy efficient. She said they started by completely reinsulating the house, and then installed two air-source heat pumps and a heat pump hot water heater. She estimates they are saving her about $2,000 per year in energy costs. She highlighted the importance of first making sure to seal up the drafts in your house before moving on to installing new technology.

“The beauty of this is, over a period of years, you’ve paid off this investment, and the savings are considerable,” she said, adding that “the health benefits of living in a gas-free house are so huge. Somehow that’s never been the key point.”

She pointed out a study conducted at UCLA which showed that children who were raised in a house with a gas range had a 42 percent higher chance of asthma than those raised in a house without a gas range.

Mr. Stewart, of Electrify Now, agreed. 

“We know burning fossil fuels creates all sorts of really bad byproducts that are not generated when you’re cooking with other techniques, including nitrous oxides that end up in the kitchen,” he said. “There are levels of pollution in kitchens that would be illegal if you were outdoors. I have friends who have asthma who can tell when they walk into a house whether it has a gas stove or not.”

“Every gas stove leaks methane into our homes,” he added.

While many people who like to cook have had bad experiences trying to regulate the temperature when cooking on older electric stoves, new technology like induction cooktops is changing that, and induction stoves are one of many items that can be retrofit into homes as part of the Inflation Reduction Act initiative.

“We are now asked to make an investment to bring the right form of energy into our houses. 

We’re not used to that,” said Mr. Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island. “Right now, we get our electricity and at the end of the month we get a bill. Ve never had to make that investment, but now we have to because these are decentralized systems. But we need the financing mechanisms and rebates to make this work.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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