Thermalize Juneau Helps Juneau Residents Retire Their Oil Tanks
Through the assistance of Thermalize Juneau, local homeowners interested in clean energy are taking advantage of heat pumps. The program helps them leverage their buying power to obtain discounts and provides technical assistance to demystify the process of installing a new and unfamiliar technology.
Cathy Muse doesn’t like using Craiglist that much, but there was something she really wanted to get rid of: her oil tank and all the oil inside it. So she went online and posted it.
“It’s half price if you can pump it!”
Thanks to her new air source heat pump, she didn’t need it anymore. Ditching her oil tank and Toyo stove was a long-awaited milestone for Muse, a Juneau resident who raised four kids in Alaska’s capital city and now has grandchildren there.
“It’s so nice to be off oil,” she says.
Muse and her husband are one of nearly eighty households who are installing air source heat pumps this fall and winter as part of “Thermalize Juneau,” a local program based on the popular Solarize campaigns that have popped up around Alaska and the Lower 48. It works by organizing local homeowners who are interested in clean energy and leveraging their buying power to obtain discounts. In addition to discounts, the program offers technical assistance to demystify the process of installing a new and unfamiliar technology, which, for people like Muse, was even more valuable.
“A heat pump is something I looked into three or four years ago, but I just didn’t know how to do it, or even what it was exactly,” she says.
Air source heat pumps absorb heat from the outside air and use a small amount of electricity to move that heat inside a building. They have tons of potential in a place like Southeast Alaska, which has a mild climate and affordable electricity, and have become very popular over the past decade. But, for the majority of interested homeowners, changing from a tried-and-true technology like oil was daunting.
That’s why Thermalize Juneau started in 2020. The program streamlines the entire process for consumers, from providing free home energy assessments to coordinating electricians and HVAC contractors needed to add a heat pump to a home’s heating mix.
“The goal was to build a bridge between the consumer seeking access to local renewable energy and contractors who could bring that into the home,” says Andy Romanoff, executive director of Alaska Heat Smart, the local nonprofit that leads the Thermalize program.
The result? More than 160 home assessments, up to eighty new heat pump installations, and two dozen home energy efficiency retrofits to make that heat go even further. The innovative approach shows what can be accomplished when a community works together toward a common goal—because Thermalize isn’t just about helping homeowners save money but about making Juneau a leader in clean energy and a model for other communities to follow.
Diane DeSloover (left) rents a Mendenhall Valley home to her daughter, Meghan (right). The house is one of nearly eighty participating in the Thermalize Juneau program to install heat pumps.
Twin Motivations: Energy and Climate
In 2018, the city and borough of Juneau adopted a goal to be 80 percent renewable by 2045, in both the heating and transportation sectors. While other Alaska cities have created similar climate action plans, Juneau’s is the most ambitious (Anchorage targets 80 percent renewables by 2050; Fairbanks is just starting to hammer out goals).
For the small coastal town, heat pumps seemed like the best way to get there. They already had momentum thanks to the local utility, Alaska Electric Light and Power, which had been promoting heat pumps since the late ‘90s as an alternative to electric resistance heat. Because a heat pump is two to three times more efficient, they decrease the load on the electricity grid and free up more kilowatts for things like electric vehicles.
Since 2016, the local nonprofit Renewable Juneau has given heat pumps a boost as well. Through the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund, the group sells carbon offsets to individuals and businesses and uses this money to install free heat pumps in lower-income residences. Since 2019, they have swapped out twenty-five oil-burning heating appliances with clean heat pumps.
Thanks to these and other efforts, heat pump installations have been steadily rising. Before the Thermalize program even started, there were roughly 1,000 systems in Juneau already. To take it to the next level, a group of private and public entities started Alaska Heat Smart, a nonprofit dedicated to growing renewable energy in Juneau, with an eye toward the 2045 goal.
“Space heating for homes is 20 percent of our carbon use in Juneau. If we can tackle that, it’s going to move the needle on climate change,” Romanoff says.
“People say, ‘Oh my friend has a heat pump. I understand how it works. I was in his house when it was 0˚ and it was warm inside.’ People often need that physical understanding and proof before investing in a new technology.”
Technology has come a long way in the past decade. Unlike older-generation heat pumps, most newer models can continue to extract heat from the outdoor air down to -13°. On the occasional sub-zero day in Juneau, a heat pump can still help keep the house warm, even if it’s not operating as efficiently (at the lowest temperatures, supplemental heat may be needed, and the program encourages homeowners to keep their backup system). Heat pumps can also supply air conditioning in the summer by simply pushing a button on the remote.
The economics in Juneau favor heat pumps as well, as most homes are heated with electric resistance or fuel oil, both of which are expensive. Romanoff used to heat his 1,700-square-foot home with oil. On a cold winter day, he would burn about three gallons of oil, which at the time cost $9. Two years ago, he installed a heat pump.
“My most expensive day so far this winter, it cost $4.81 to heat my house,” he says. “Overall, my home’s heating bills have been cut by 50 percent.”
This translates into attractive payback periods. According to the free assessments included with the Thermalize campaign, most homes can expect to pay off a heat pump in five to seven years through energy savings. There is a wide range, of course—a small, energy efficient home with an oil boiler would take longer to pay back the investment than an old, leaky house using electric resistance baseboards. For the sake of Thermalize, anything under ten years was considered a good candidate for a heat pump, Romanoff says.
The final selling point for heat pumps in Juneau: the local utility generates all its electricity with hydro. Because heat pumps use electricity to gather “free” thermal energy from the air, they are only as clean as the electricity they use. In Fairbanks, for example, where the grid is powered by coal and diesel, a heat pump would still rely on these sources, albeit more efficiently. For anyone motivated by their carbon footprint, this is a big factor in installing a heat pump.
“If you want to get off oil, you’re truly getting off oil,” Romanoff says.
Why do people do it?
Romanoff loves his lower heating bills, but he has a larger agenda in promoting heat pumps in his community.
“I don’t want to lose our winters,” he says.
On average, Juneau’s winters are getting warmer. It’s raining more and snowing less. The city is updating its landslide maps to account for more extreme weather events.
He’s not the only one motivated by climate. In a survey for Thermalize, participants listed their top three goals as lowering heating bills, reducing fossil fuel use, and helping meet Juneau’s renewable energy goal.
Michael Penn and his wife Iris Korhonen-Penn have taken several steps to reduce their carbon footprint over the past few years. They swapped out their oil stove for a pellet stove, and both purchased electric vehicles. When they installed a heat pump in October, they cut their household’s final tie with oil.
“We’ve gone whole hog here,” Penn says.
So far, they like their new heater. While some heat pumps are tied to a distribution system, the model used in the Thermalize program is just a simple space heater. It keeps the downstairs comfortable, Penn says. When the upstairs gets cold, they turn on the electric baseboards in the bedrooms.
While he would have gotten a heat pump anyway, the Thermalize program helped smooth out the entire process.
“It was nice talking to the engineer, having someone at least confirm your feelings that this is the way to go,” he says.
Because so many homes participated, they each received a $400 rebate on their heat pump. Penn decided to donate his to the Juneau Carbon Offset Fund to help other homes get heat pumps too.
Nick Nelson installs the outdoor unit of an air source heat pump in a Juneau home. Heat pumps work by absorbing heat from the outside air and using a small amount of electricity to move that heat into a building.
Expanding the Demographic
A big part of the Thermalize campaign is planting the seed for new technologies, says Jamie Hansen, CEO of Information Insights in Fairbanks. Hansen initiated and helped lead “Solarize Fairbanks” the past two years, which mobilized 138 homes and businesses in the Interior to invest in solar. Just like solar panels, she says, heat pumps will advertise themselves.
“People say, ‘Oh my friend has a heat pump. I understand how it works. I was in his house when it was 0° and it was warm inside.’ People often need that physical understanding and proof before investing in a new technology,” she says.
Another big goal is to spread the technology to a wider demographic. Most Thermalize participants have higher than average incomes—households with the upfront capital to invest in money-saving technologies. Meanwhile, lower-income families tend to live in less efficient housing and face higher energy burdens.
Part of Thermalize Juneau is figuring out how to target these lower- and middle-income homes, through low-interest loans, on-bill financing, or other mechanisms. Information Insights and the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, part of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, are analyzing the pilot project to figure out its economic impact and how to make it more equitable in the future. Through Department of Energy funding, researchers will produce a guide for other communities to follow.
For now, the benefits of the campaign are already becoming clear: there are more air source heat pumps, more residents who understand them, and more contractors who know how to work on them. Along the Gastineau Channel in Juneau, there is a heat pump community.
Molly Rettig is the communications lead for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, part of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. She is author of the book, Finding True North: First-Hand Stories of the Booms that Built Modern Alaska, published by the University of Alaska Press.