Isaac Ellis poses with his new heat pump, acquired with help from rebate programs. Photo by Brent Moss Photography

“Heat Pumps, heat pumps, that’s the key,” declares Marty Treadway, program director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE). This is the sort of adamant answer he gives homeowners who ask, what equipment can be installed to lower residential utility bills, and preferably, not destroy the planet? The next question is, what’s a heat pump?

It’s time to find out. The year 2022 is when homeowners should “identify location for future batteries and heat pumps,” according to the CORE Codes Platform, a road map to reducing all greenhouse emissions from residential and commercial buildings to net zero, the point at which every structure produces only as much energy as it consumes, and has no natural gas line connected. The Codes Platform puts pressure on local building codes to mandate green technologies and readiness for them in all new construction. The global goal is to cleanly, comfortably and affordably electrify everything under the sun to achieve “beneficial electrification,” the jargon renewable energy nerds use in discussing the human race against climate change. Carbondale’s target year is 2030.

What makes the heat pump a critical component in this massive undertaking is that it burns no fossil fuels. A 2017 CORE survey estimated that 62% of all greenhouse gases in the upper Roaring Fork Valley are emitted by structures already built. Without a mandate to electrify, as there is with new construction, it’s up to owners of existing buildings to retrofit beneficially, and to “fuel switch” from natural gas to electric. Heat pumps have long been used in temperate cimates to cool buildings by absorbing warm, inside air and releasing it outside; they are also an important mechanism in refrigerators and air conditioners. The big breakthrough is the development of heat pumps for cold climates that absorb heat from cold air outside and transfer it inside.

Demonstrating that cold climate heat pumps can operate even in frigid temperatures, Aspen Skiing Company (SkiCo) installed one at Elk Camp, the Snowmass ski patrol center located at 11,800 feet, says Ryland French, director of facility operations and energy facility management. To view heat pumps galore, French recently led The Sopris Sun and other visitors up to the roof of The Hub at Willits, built by SkiCo for its employees and childcare workers. 

The top was bedecked with 53 heat pumps, one for each of The Hub’s 53 rental units. They look like air conditioners. In Basalt Vista, a subdivision of 27 affordable single-family houses built by Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, each residence has a heat pump, says Gail Schwartz, president.

Treadway applauds these generously subsidized showcase installations. But “they don’t demystify heat pumps for everybody else. Installing heat pumps must be normalized,” he says, like buying an electric vehicle (EV) is rapidly becoming. Heat pumps can be less expensive than EVs and don’t evoke status and style. Yet they are equally important, Treadway says.

Lisa Reed, energy programs manager for Holy Cross Energy (HCE), offers an example of the difference in public awareness between EVs and heat pumps. She says that in 2021 HCE issued 102 home EV battery installation rebates in the RFV, but gave out only 20 heat pump rebates. Some systems still require a conventional heating backup. Reed acknowledges that without rebates, heat pump systems are more expensive at the front end, than conventional equipment. But not for long. “I’d give it another three to four years before heat pump installation is competitive,” she says. 

Isaac Ellis and his wife Dana Ellis, did not want to wait. They “rode the rollercoaster” of rebate programs to find the financial formula to retrofit the 40-year old, all-electric, 2,000-square foot Carbondale home that doubles as their office for their architectural firm, Outpost Studio LLC. “Heat pump rebates come and go,” Ellis cautions. He advises that homeowners visit the online Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency to find current offerings. Before installation, Ellis says it’s essential to “have a baseline understanding of how your house uses energy,” by getting a free energy assessment and making necessary improvements.

Contractor Dan Dixon knew nothing about heat pumps until he found out about them from CORE, and found an Xcel Energy rebate program to install heat pump-powered radiant floors in his barn workshop. He also installed a heat pump for the 1,000-square foot main house’s 40- gallon hot water heater. “We’re three people and we never run out of hot water,” he says.  Dixon’s house and workshop are so comfortable that he encouraged a client in Aspen to install a similar system in his multi-million dollar remodel.

“We are super happy with our heat pump,” says Scott Dillard, a real estate agent who received an HCE rebate to retrofit his family’s 7,000-square foot house. The Dillards didn’t need to use the fireplace in a large glass-walled room, even when the outside temperature dipped below zero. The same system cools the house in summer, he says.

“Having a house that makes its own energy is emotionally exciting,” says Isaac Ellis, who also installed solar panels to sell energy back to HCE. “Switching to a heat pump is not a luxury. It’s affordable for lots of people who live in this valley. And it’s a necessity, to keep future generations from inheriting our climate conundrum.”