Opinion: Heat pumps reduce costs and pollution. So why isn’t it easier to install one in California?

The country’s utilities have expressed overwhelming support for reducing carbon emissions. Eighty percent of U.S. electric customers are served by a utility with a goal of 100 percent carbon reduction, according to the Smart Electric Power Alliance, and utility executives announced their sustainability plans at the Smart Electric Power Alliance UN Climate Change Conference, Davos and beyond.

Why is it so difficult to get help switching to a climate-friendly heat pump?

marvels of modern technology, Heat pumps provide heating and cooling by moving warm or cold air into or out of a home, eliminating the need to generate heat. They have essentially proven themselves Reducing heating costs for consumers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 50%.

Like so many other Americans who helped fuel the housing boom after the pandemic hit, I recently began a major renovation of my Bay Area home. Unlike most of my restructuring colleagues, I make my living analyzing customer experience trends across the country’s electric, gas and water utilities. As an energy nerd, I saw the project as an opportunity to explore the various incentives that utilities have promoted to make it easier for me to switch from a gas-fired furnace to an electric heat pump.

What I found was a tangle of bureaucracy, well-meaning but tragically ill-informed customer service representatives, and hours of filling out forms, tracking down obscure information, and interviewing contractors – all in a quixotic search for my local, state, and federal discounts.

Heat pumps play a large role as part of electricity suppliers’ sustainability initiatives. The Biden administration recently announced this 63 million dollars Under the Inflation Reduction Act, funds are intended to be used to boost domestic production of heat pumps, and local, state and federal incentives have been created in most jurisdictions across the country to encourage consumers to make the switch.

At the federal level, consumers are eligible for a tax credit that covers 30% of the cost of purchasing and installing a heat pump, up to a maximum of $2,000 per year. The TECH Clean California The program offers contractors incentives for installing heat pumps Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and other utilities offer discounts and other benefits. In Marin County, where I live, state, regional and local incentives promised to increase the total rebate for my project to nearly $5,000.

This prospect and the long-term value of increased efficiency were enough to convince me to make the move to a system that was slightly more expensive than a comparable gas furnace. Furthermore, my extensive research on this topic was enough to overcome this widespread misconceptions about the technology and its ability to comfortably heat and cool my home.

The good news is that my heat pump works great! It’s so good that I started recommending it to my friends and neighbors. It’s not loud or dry like traditional heat; it is even and smooth. The system allowed for much more flexibility in our construction and design. And the best thing: I now have central cooling for the first time.

Unfortunately, I also spent hours looking for discounts that I still haven’t received.

Ironically, the easiest part of the process was applying for a federal refund from the Internal Revenue Service. When the IRS sets the standard for customer service, you know you have a problem.

The challenges I faced included a more than hour-long conversation with a friendly representative from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. who knew absolutely nothing about heat pump programs; an apologetic county official who told me I had to fill out a commercial form even though my project was residential because “that’s how the paperwork is written”; and even a request to provide detailed photos of my old gas furnace – the one that had already been removed – to prove I had made the switch.

Luckily, since I was documenting the process in part for my own education, I had these photos and appreciated the opportunity to find out all the hurdles consumers face. But will typical consumers — those who don’t spend their workdays analyzing the details of the utility customer experience — even engage with this craziness? Probably not.

Maybe that has something to do with the distribution Customer apathy towards sustainability efforts by electricity suppliers. JD Power’s most recent study on this topic found that only 19% of customers were even aware of their energy provider’s carbon reduction initiatives.

We live in a time of amazing technological innovation and have public policies aimed at encouraging consumer adoption of these breakthroughs. But if the same old bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way of access to these programs, no one will win.

There is a great opportunity here for innovative utilities to take a leadership role in improving not only our policies, but also the mechanisms that make them work. As a utility industry professional, I am optimistic that our leaders will address this issue. As a consumer, I just hope I get my discount at some point.

Andrew Heath is vice president of utility information at JD Power.

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