Four Things to Know from a State’s Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are slowly approaching household-name status as an energy-efficient alternative to heat sources that require the burning of fossil fuels. But how do they work, and how might they help schools?

Experts in Maine are finding answers to those questions that are likely to be useful for school districts in other states as well. Last year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills set aside $8 million in federal relief dollars for improving energy efficiency in schools, primarily by promoting the adoption of heat pumps.

Heavily reliant on fossil fuels to heat and cool their buildings, the nation’s schools emit the equivalent of 5 million gas-powered cars each year, a recent report found. One way to reduce those emissions could be installing HVAC systems powered by electric heat pumps.

Tasked with executing that effort in Maine is Efficiency Maine, an independent administrator that works closely with the state government to help residential and commercial customers improve energy efficiency. The organization’s current focus is eliminating fossil fuel consumption.

Slowly but surely, the project is gaining momentum, said Rick Meinking, business program manager at Efficiency Maine. As of Jan. 13, Efficiency Maine had approved 15 school projects totaling nearly $370,000. The state has roughly 600 public schools buildings.

Meinking recently shared with Education Week some insights from his group’s efforts so far, and previewed future efforts to transition to cleaner energy in school buildings.

Here are a few takeaways:

Governments and schools have to work in concert with contractors and industry.

Just because a customer—whether an individual, a business, or a school district—wants to invest in heat pumps doesn’t mean the resources exist to meet that desire.

Efficiency Maine has prioritized collaborating closely with local trade alliances of HVAC contractors to ensure that they’re up to speed on the benefits of heat pumps, and that they have the resources and training necessary to install them.

This kind of effort is needed, Meinking, said, to ensure a knowledgeable contractor is ready and willing when a school wants to install a heat pump-powered HVAC system.

Not all heat pumps are created equal.

Heat pumps can be broken into two main categories: ground-source or geothermal (absorbing heat from beneath the earth), and air-source (absorbing heat from the air).

Ground-source heat pumps at first may appear more cost-effective and energy-efficient than air-source heat pumps, Meinking said. But looks can be deceiving: Ground-source heat pumps require far more disruptive construction, like adding motors and drilling wells to convert water from the ground into energy that can heat or cool buildings.

Contractors used to recommend ground-source heat pumps to schools that inquired. Now Efficiency Maine is working to bring those experts up to speed on the latest research, which shows that air-source heat pumps are effective even at extremely cold temperatures.

Swapping out home HVAC can have an effect on schools, too.

Some efforts to improve energy efficiency in schools start at home.

More than 17.5 million heat pumps were installed in homes across the United States as of 2020, compared with fewer than 12 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. According to Meinking, air-source heat pumps are the most common type across Maine.

“Take a facility manager of a school district,” said Meinking. “He has a home, he bought a heat pump, he learns that Efficiency Maine’s got air-source heat pump incentives that would do commercial buildings. He says, ‘Oh wow, I’ve gotta show this off to the superintendent because this is a real game-changer.’”

In other words, the proliferation of heat pumps in people’s homes can help spur interest in bringing the technology to schools.

Installing a heat pump may be worthwhile, but it won’t be a breeze.

Some districts have balked at the high short-term price tag—in the tens of thousands of dollars—for installing a heat pump. Convincing a district leader to see the bigger picture is often easier than swaying school board members or parents concerned about wasted investments, even when the state, not the district, is footing much of the bill.

Meinking is also eager to avoid the pitfalls of the COVID-era push for ventilation in schools. That movement is well-intentioned, he said, but the call to open windows to mitigate the spread of COVID ignores the potential risks of driving up energy costs when buildings fill up with cold air.

Efficiency Maine has spent much of its time since the governor implemented the funding program targeting rural school districts with particularly old buildings. Districts can also apply of their own volition.

So far, the group has found the most success by highlighting the ability of an air-source heat pump to move energy around from one part of a school building to another depending on which areas get the most or least heat at particular times of the day.

“When you start to say that to the customer, that does make a lot of sense,” he said.

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