“Heat locally,” proclaims Andy Romanoff with a grin.
As program lead of Renewable Juneau’s Carbon Offset Fund, Andy has co-opted the “locavore” mentality pushed by farmers, chefs and eaters to the realm of residential heating. He joins a crew of renewable energy advocates, lower-income homeowners, and local contractors who together are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and housing costs through a modest appliance: the air source heat pump, powered with locally-produced renewable energy.
For Andy, when it comes to carbon reductions, “it all starts at home.”
He notes that on average, most Juneau homes generate 10,000 to 11,000 pounds of carbon emissions each year just from heating. Taking a broader view, Juneau’s building sector was responsible for 28% of our greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Most of these emissions come from oil-burning boilers and furnaces used to heat living and work spaces. Replacing heating systems that rely on imported fossil fuels with electricity-powered heat pumps eliminates most building-related emissions. Project Drawdown ranks heat pumps as 42 of 80 solutions to climate change.
The Juneau Renewable Energy Strategy, adopted by Juneau’s Assembly in 2018, affirms the proliferation of heat pumps as an effective strategy to achieve the goal of deriving 80% of Juneau’s energy from renewable sources by 2045. And since 2018, a host of organizations have stepped forward to advance the adoption of heat pumps in Juneau. This includes Alaska Heat Smart, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting homeowners with the purchase and installation of heat pumps, and the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund, Renewable Juneau’s program that installs heat pumps in the homes of qualifying low-income families.
Heat pump advocates spend much of their time educating policy makers and consumers about how heat pumps work. Heat pumps transfer heat instead of generate heat. Ground source heat pumps transfer heat from the ground, and air-source heat pumps transfer ambient heat from the air. Air source heat pumps are 250% efficient, because they move more heat than the electricity consumed to do so. ‘Mini-split ductless’ heat pumps are the simplest on the market; a system that pairs an outside compressor unit with an indoor unit to distribute the heat.
These efficient devices powered by Juneau’s relatively inexpensive electricity translate to notable savings on energy bills, in addition to sizeable carbon reductions. Data from Alaska Heat Smart indicates that households that install heat pumps see an average 45% reduction in the cost of space heating. And those 10,000 annual pounds of CO2 emissions resulting from fossil fuel heating sources? Eliminated.
These savings improve housing affordability and the carbon savings help our environment, creating a win-win scenario that a rapidly growing number of residents enjoy. Over 100 heat pumps were installed in Juneau in 2020 alone.
These benefits are not shared equally. Low-income families often lack the up-front cash required to purchase and install heat pumps. The primary push of the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund (JCOF), which Andy manages as a volunteer, is to bring equity to Juneau’s heat pump revolution. JCOF works as a funding mechanism to bring free heat pumps to lower-income home owners.
A growing number of people are aware of the carbon emissions resulting from 21st Century living – heating, driving, shipping, travel – these all add up to a sizable carbon impact. JCOF offers a service to those looking to reduce the impact of the emissions they generate by selling these individuals carbon offsets. JCOF attaches an accurately-calculated price to the amount of carbon resulting from an activity—take flying as an example. Individuals purchase carbon offsets to compensate for these emissions. The money then goes to installing air source heat pumps in lower-income family homes in Juneau. These air source heat pumps replace fuel oil units and permanently prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise would have been generated. The newly-installed heat pumps thus “offset” the emissions the flight generated. And, the heat pump substantially lowers the home heating costs of the recipient.
JCOF “gives local residents and business owners the option to take meaningful climate action in the town they live in and love,” says Andy. As for those who receive heat pumps, “it’s fantastic to see their faces light up when they see how much money they’ll save with the heat pump.” Since its inception, JCOF has funded one heat pump installation per month.
Other programs are helping to hasten the adoption of heat pumps for residential heating. Alaska Heat Smart is seeking participants for the Thermalize Juneau program, which pairs home energy efficiency upgrades with the bulk-purchase of air source heat pumps. Alaska Heat Smart also offers loans to purchase heat pumps. A coalition of local organizations like Alaska Heat Smart, Renewable Juneau, and Interfaith Power and Light are exploring other financing options, including on-bill financing.
The ballooning popularity of heat pumps will continue unabated. Andy has witnessed how one installation spurs another, and then another, as friends and neighbors hear of the comfort and cost savings that accompany heat pumps.
“The impact is bigger than you, and that’s important to know,” Andy notes. “The climate crisis can seem daunting and hopeless, but with local action that starts in your home, not only can you slash your own carbon footprint, but you can effect change in others. We all have the potential to have a greater impact that we may realize. Our climate actions have a ripple effect on those around us.”
• Anjuli Grantham is a public historian and museum curator who serves on the board of Renewable Juneau and is vice vhair of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. Juneau’s Climate Change Solutionists is a series that features 10 local solutions to climate change and 10 people who exemplify the solutions. The solutions are based on Project Drawdown, a global project that quantifies the most effective methods for halting global warming. The series was produced with support from a Juneau ArtWorks grant. It appears weekly in the Juneau Empire.