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Environment, Climate and HealthMechanisms for Advancing Health Equity

Investments in Energy Efficient Heat Pumps Likely to Pay Off for Public Health

May 15, 2024


In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced $27 billion in funding for renewable energy, which holds promising opportunities for advancing public health efforts to address the negative and disparate impacts of climate change. One permissible purpose for the funds is to support the purchase and installation of heat pumps, which provide multiple economic, environmental, and health benefits.

On April 4, 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $20 billion in grant awards to establish a National Clean Investment Fund and a Clean Communities Investment Accelerator. The clean energy financing was authorized under the Inflation Reduction Act and is intended to provide financial support for the transition to renewable energy. On April 22, an additional $7 billion in funds to expand access to affordable residential solar energy for low-income households through the Solar for All program was announced.

The April 4 announcement described a homeowner in Georgia who had received assistance to purchase a heat pump water heater as the first example of the type of project the National Clean Investment Fund might support. Heat pumps are “low hanging fruit”, because they can provide multiple economic, environmental, and health benefits.

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is an appliance that uses energy to transfer heat. A heat pump may be fueled by natural gas, but many are fueled by electricity or geothermal energy. Heat pumps serve as alternatives to both furnaces and air conditioners by moving heat around in order to make indoor air either warmer or colder.

There are three primary types of heat pump:

  • Air source heat pump.
  • Mini split heat pump, which is an air source heat pump for homes without ducts.
  • Geothermal heat pumps, which transfer heat between a home or building and the ground or a nearby water source. Geothermal heat pumps may serve as water heaters.

Heat pumps are energy efficient because they transfer heat, rather than generate it.

Heat pumps can be used in a variety of ways in single family homes, multifamily homes and apartments, mobile homes, schools, hospitals, and other buildings.

How do heat pumps support public health?

Some public health practitioners and community advocates may already be familiar with the economic, environmental, and health benefits of heat pumps. These benefits include:

When a new technology is developed, it is usually most accessible and affordable for middle- and upper-income households and neighborhoods. If heat pumps are to realize their full potential to contribute to public health, we need to prioritize equitable access to heat pump technology.

Are there examples of laws and policies that can support rapid and widespread adoption of heat pumps?

In addition to the federal investment in increased energy efficiency and renewable energy , and in heat pumps specifically, Tribal, state, and local, governments are taking a variety of steps to speed the transition to heat pumps, often with an emphasis on the communities most affected by extreme heat, extreme cold, high energy costs, and poor air quality. The remainder of this post sets forth examples.

Tribal Approaches

A number of Tribal entities are taking advantage of federal funds to expand access to heat pumps and other clean energy technology. The Northwest Arctic Borough, a region of 11 Tribal communities, will expand access to heat pumps and solar energy using federal funds as well as regional matches and contributions. The Borough is also taking steps to establish an independent power producers entity.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have also prioritized energy efficiency and affordability in new housing for Tribal elders and a new public health building in Oregon.

State Approaches

The U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of 25 governors, has announced a goal of quadrupling heat pump installations in their states by 2030.

A group of nine states has entered into a memorandum of understanding setting forth a shared goal that 65 percent of new residential HVAC and hot water heating systems will be electric heat pumps by 2030, and 90 percent of all new systems by 2040.

With federal support, Maine will pilot a program to install heat pumps in mobile homes.

New York is increasing the use of heat pumps in under-resourced schools through its “Clean Green Schools” initiative.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce administers an Air Source Heat Pump Collaborative composed of the nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, investor-owned utilities, and consumer-owned electric utilities.

California has adopted statewide building energy efficiency standards to encourage use of heat pumps. The state Public Utilities Commission has directed funds to Regional Energy Networks that provide education and technical assistance related to heat pumps and building electrification to home owners, multi-unit housing owners and developers, HVAC installers, and property developers.

Colorado has passed a slate of clean energy laws, including tax incentives and grant programs for purchasing and installing heat pumps and other energy efficient electrical appliances.    

Local Approaches

Juneau, Alaska has adopted policies and developed partnerships to become a “heat pump hub,” including a city renewable energy strategy.

San Francisco will leverage federal funds to install high voltage heat pump water heaters in two neighborhoods.

The San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District passed a regulation to reduce air pollution from residential water heaters.

After the 2021 “heat dome,” Portland, Oregon collaborated with community-based organizations to provide portable heat pump cooling units through the city’s Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund Heat Response Program. The application process for nonprofit and government entities supported by a community coalition for the 2024 program is open through May 17, 2024.

New York City plans to install thousands of window unit heat pumps in affordable housing. Green Homes Chicago is helping low-income homeowners to access home energy upgrades and energy efficiency retrofits, including heat pump HVAC systems.

To learn more about heat pumps and public health, you are invited to register for the Network’s upcoming June 6 webinar, Heat Pumps: An Emerging Tool to Support Cleaner Air, More Affordable Energy, and Better Health.

This article was written by Jill Krueger, J.D., Director, Climate and Health, Network for Public Health Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, please consult specific legal counsel.