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Let’s Talk About Heat Pumps

With the hottest summer on record behind us, many Washingtonians are thinking about adding air conditioning to their homes. This means it’s time to talk about heat pumps—the appliance that provides both AC and heat while running on clean electricity instead of methane gas.

Spark Northwest, in partnership with five cities—Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Mercer Island, and Redmond, administers the Energy Smart Eastside Program. The goal of the program is to support residents in making the switch to heat pumps. From our experience in the design and implementation of this program, we have gleaned some clear-cut learnings. 

First, there’s a lot of hunger for heat pumps. It wasn’t long ago that no one knew what heat pumps were. Now we hear from residents who are seeing them in their favorite coffee shops, local boutiques and more. The first step in the Energy Smart Eastside program is to sign up for a free 1-hour community workshop, and we were overwhelmed with the turnout and interest. Over 500 people showed up.  

Second, everyone benefits from information, support and a little hand holding as they go through the process. Many folks sign up for our program because of the financial benefits and assistance. However, we also have families who don’t need financial resources and instead want information and  the peace of mind of working with verified heat pump contractors and installers. We’ve found providing this basic guidance—free informational workshops and contractor connections—to be key. It’s the bridge for a family to go from wanting a heat pump to actually getting one.  

Finally, more programs and funding to expand access for families living on low and moderate incomes is essential. The federal tax credits available now for heat pumps and other upgrades are very helpful, but households living on lower incomes that don’t benefit as much from tax credits need deep rebates that offset costs. This takes layering and packaging together multiple funding sources – local, state and federal. Managing these opportunities and their stipulations can be difficult for many even if the opportunity is there. For the Energy Smart Eastside campaign, we partnered with the King County Housing Authority to provide weatherization services and heat pump installations in 25 affordable housing units. This kind of work is an equity and environmental justice priority that demands far more resources, financial and relational, than the pilot project levels we’ve seen to date 

The demand is there, and Spark Northwest is poised to put heat pumps in the homes of Washingtonians all over the state. But we’re not going to get anywhere close without a lot more funding, especially at the state level, to support low- and middle-income families to make the switch. That financial support is needed this year, next year, and ongoing. With summer temperatures rising each year, let’s give Washingtonians what they want—comfort and safety in their homes.  

This was adapted from an Opinion piece originally written by Amy Bettle, and published in The Olympian in April 2023Amy Bettle manages Spark Northwest’s Solarize and Energize programs, leading group purchase programs for solar and energy efficiency. She also conducts community education on renewable energy and advocates for policies supporting a just transition to clean energy.