Heat Pumps as a Sustainable Choice

By David Hill

As climate change has continued to drive summer heat and humidity to extremes, you’ve probably heard a lot about the popularity of using heat pump systems for both central cooling and heating. Heat pumps have a reputation as an environmentally friendly choice that will also save you money. Efficiency Vermont strongly advocates for their use and offers cost-saving incentives for their purchase and installation. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Vermont households are installing an estimated 4,141 units per year, which accounts for 1.6 percent of the state’s 330,000 households—the highest penetration rate in the Northeast.   

What exactly are these things and how do they work? Simply, in winter they use electrical power to extract heat from the outside air and then blow this concentrated heat into your home. In summer they reverse this process to function as an air conditioner. 

The physical components of a heat pump system are an outside condensing unit and one or more inside heads that either mount on the wall or sit on the floor and deliver heat and cooling to their respective zones. (There are many instructive websites explaining the science behind this modern miracle). The key point is that they operate efficiently, using electricity as a power source, and as a result will reduce your carbon footprint. 

Here are some reasons why a cold-climate heat pump system may be the right choice for you.

  • Electricity makes environmental sense:
    • First of all, heat pumps use electricity as a power source, and Vermonters are fortunate to have a relatively green power grid. The Green Mountain Power website states that 60 percent of their power comes from renewable resources, which compares favorably with total U.S. electricity generation of only 17 percent renewable.
    • Woodstock’s Comprehensive Energy Plan has set a goal of achieving 90 percent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. So expanding electricity use is a good choice if we want to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels.
    • The other great advantage of using a heating and cooling system that uses electricity is the potential to use power generated by renewable resources like solar. My wife and I converted space over our carriage barn into an AirB&B rental space, and the solar panels mounted on the roof provide all the electricity needed to light, heat, and cool the whole apartment. That’s good for our peace of mind, as well as a nice marketing angle!
  • You may save money.
    • There are also sound financial reasons to choose a heat pump system. Green Mountain Power customers can get a $400 to $1,000 rebate depending on the size and complexity of the system. This helps make their installation competitive with the more conventional heating and cooling systems.
    • Also, the operational costs of heat pumps are lower than those of resistance electric heat, propane, #2 fuel, and wood pellets, according to research by the Vermont Department of Public Service. And this mix is projected to get greener every year. Although there were initial claims that heating with oil is less costly, studies have shown only an approximate savings of $200 per heat-pump unit. The bottom line is that heat pumps are generally less expensive to operate than carbon fuel-based heating systems, with the added bonus of knowing you are doing something good for the planet. Plus, electricity prices are regulated by the state, so you’re protected from the extreme volatility that can be experienced with the price of oil and propane.
  • You can heat, cool, and dehumidify your home.
    • One of the overlooked aspects of a heat pump system is that it can operate as both an air conditioner and a heater. When I moved to Vermont in 1975, the use of air conditioning was rare. In fact, many of the people moving to Vermont considered it a distinct advantage that AC was not really needed. Unfortunately, over the last couple of decades, climate dynamics have changed to the extent that it is not unusual to have consecutive days of 90-degree heat and near 100 percent humidity. Heat pumps in AC mode simultaneously cool and dehumidify indoors spaces. They also provide cleaner air for your home because each unit includes a removable air filter that helps to reduce dust and allergens within your home.

As you can see, the excitement surrounding the use of heat pumps for heating and cooling is justified.  They can be less expensive to operate and a cleaner alternative to carbon-based systems, contributing toward meeting the goals set under Woodstock’s Comprehensive Energy Plan and Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

David Hill is a designer/builder with over 40 years of green-building experience, and is a former member of the Board of Sustainable Woodstock.


Contact an HVAC contractor today to see if a cold climate heat pump system is for you. Better yet, combine it with a solar array and help Vermont on its way to a sustainable energy future!

Employing heat pumps is one of many actions we can take to mitigate the far-reaching impacts of climate change, including the melting of glaciers. Shown here: The Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana: in 1910 (l) (Elrod photo, GNP Archives) and in 2007 (r) (Fagre/Pederson photo). USGS public domain


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.