We can use simple, effective, and proven policies that have been used to supercharge the New England solar PV industry to incentivize renewable thermal technologies and eliminate oil use for single family homes. Here's the best part, the policies will be cheaper than solar PV, they will create more local jobs per kW installed and displace more expensive fuel.
At Renewable Energy Vermont 2012, I delivered a presentation on how a production-based incentive for renewable thermal technologies, like the $29/MWh incentive in New Hampshire, would be cheaper than the current solar PV incentive in Vermont and could have a larger impact. The current incentive for solar PV in Vermont is $271/MWh for 25 years, but we could eliminate oil use for single family homes with a policy for renewable thermal technologies of $100/MWh guaranteed for five years. This policy would be much cheaper than the solar PV incentive and would drastically increase the adoption of biomass, air source heat pumps and ground source heat pumps. It would put a huge dent in oil consumption for single family homes, save money and create local jobs. If you're new or curious about thermal incentives, Renewable Energy World has done some great reporting on it.
As I started to run the numbers when I was creating the presentation, I was blown away by how much energy renewable thermal technologies produced, and how valuable that energy is when displacing oil, propane and electricity. Many attendees at the talk had never seen the numbers broken out in a way that easily compares apples to apples. However, as any engineer knows, converting kWs to tons to BTUs is relatively simple. When we compare these technologies in the same terms, it starts to provide a very clear picture of the results that can be achieved by investing in proven renewable energy thermal technologies. These technologies include solar thermal systems, geothermal/ground source heat pumps, air source heat pumps, and biomass.
For the purpose of this article, I'm going to compare solar thermal and ground source heat pumps to a standard solar PV project in a baseline home. I'm using these technologies because I'm the most familiar with them. However, further analysis should absolutely include air source heat pumps and biomass technology.
Background: Why look at renewable thermal technologies?
We waste a lot of money on oil for space heating. Yes, oil industry, my goal is to put you out of business. But don't worry, we'll train you to install these new technologies. In addition to building and retrofitting buildings to have tighter shells, there are only three technologies, yes three, that can eliminate on-site fossil fuel use: biomass (pellets and cord wood), air source heat pumps, and ground source heat pumps. Here are a few pieces of data on why a focus on oil usage is so important for New England.
The Northeast uses the most oil for space heating, which also happens to be an extremely expensive fuel source. Six million homes use oil for heat, and the average home uses 800 gallons of oil per year, which equals roughly 4.8 billion gallons per year.
If we assume that the average residential price is $4 per gallon or slightly higher, home oil-heat spending is roughly $20 billion dollars per year.
These are huge industry trends, so let's break the data down into something more tangible. U.S. census data reveals the number of single family homes in each specific state, this is the "total homes" column. I then broke down the heating fuel mix for each state, provided by the EIA, and found the number of single family homes in each state that use a high-cost fuel (oil, propane). You can see that the numbers are sizable. I then took the total number of homes and divided it by the number of homes using an expensive fuel source, which you can see on the far right. This means that nine out of 10 homes in Maine are using a very expensive fuel source. For this reason, the adoption of heat pumps in Maine are growing rapidly. In Massachusetts, 54 percent, or five in 10 homes, use these sources. However, Massachusetts-specific data reveals that some communities use natural gas (that's green). However, there are a large number of communities where 60+ percent of single family homes use an expensive fuel source.
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