Powering Strong Communities

APPA-Funded Pilot Program Shows Value of Utilizing Coaches for Heat Pump Installations

A Concord Municipal Light Plant pilot program for the Massachusetts-based public power utility’s heat pump adoption initiative, completed with assistance from an American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments Program grant and Energy New England, shows the value of utilizing coaches who can walk customers through the process of installing heat pumps.

The pilot program, motivated by emissions-reductions goals set by both the Town of Concord and the utility, aimed to utilize highly trained coaches to increase installation rates for residential heat pumps through one-on-one advising sessions and regular follow-up contact. The program was completed in June 2022. The utility recruited community members who had previously installed heat pumps in their own homes, with three out of four current or former coaches having installed a heat pump in the past. The fourth is in the process of installing a heat pump in his home.

Over the course of the pilot program, these coaches conducted 351 initial consultations, which far exceeded CMLP’s goal of 150. Of those consultations, 17 percent resulted in a client installing a heat pump. By November 2022, that percentage had increased to 26 percent.

CMLP took care to prepare coaches for the demands of walking customers through a complicated, lengthy, and expensive process. Jan Aceti, Energy Conservation Coordinator with CMLP, noted the importance of coaches being both well trained and sufficiently supported, saying, “I do feel that it’s important for the coaches to feel that not only can they get expert technical advice when they need it, but that [the utility] is available to talk with them about complex issues like rebate eligibility.”

The coaches played a key role in guiding clients through the process, particularly when factors such as the home’s age necessitated a Home Energy Assessment—conducted by ENE—to determine whether a home needed improvements to insulation, windows, or weatherization before installing a heat pump.

As a technology with which many customers remain unfamiliar, heat pumps represented an area where knowledgeable, non-financially motivated consultants proved highly successful. Surveys of coaching clients saw a nine out of ten customer satisfaction rating, with 90 percent of those clients saying they would recommend the service to others.

Among CMLP’s primary motivations for this program was the ambitious emissions-reductions targets set by the Town of Concord and the utility. Per Noel Chambers, Director, Energy Efficiency and Electrification with ENE, Massachusetts has “very aggressive goals and very aggressive timelines [for emissions reductions],” and CMLP sees increased adoption of heat pumps as a key method for achieving those goals.

CMLP’s DEED report states an aim of 180 installations each year to meet its 2050 emissions targets, but the utility saw only 71 documented installations in 2021, the first year of its pilot. The utility’s pilot period concluded in June 2022, and, at the time of its final report publication, it had documented 136 installations. By the end of 2022, however, the total number of documented installations jumped to 178, with particular growth seen in the percentage of coaching-assisted installations, rising from 34 percent in 2021 to 50 percent in the first half of 2022 and 61 percent during the second half of the year.

Aceti and Chambers both noted the value of DEED grants for smaller utilities like CMLP. Aceti said the program “lends a lot of legitimacy,” serving as a guarantee to the utility and its customers that CMLP is “responsible for carrying that project to fruition.”

Chambers, speaking more broadly, emphasized the importance of putting public power utilities—particularly smaller utilities—on more level footing with investor-owned utilities: “IOUs have…the capability and ability built into their programs to conduct one-off, exploratory projects. An individual light plant – it would be impossible to develop these programs without grant funding [from programs like DEED].”

CMLP received $37,987.94 via the DEED grant and provided $33,535.53 In training and wages for the heat pump coaches, in addition to $47,212.84 in labor hours contributed by CMLP’s Energy Conservation Coordinator. Some of the coordinator’s responsibilities included assigning clients to coaches, working with the coaches to develop coaching procedures and tools, and marketing the coaching service. Though budgeted for $12,000, ENE’s financial contribution ended up being only a fraction of that amount at $250, largely because other pilot project priorities left less time than expected to work on integrating the heat pump coaching service and the home energy assessment service.

The utility plans to continue the project with an expanded in-house budget for 2023, and CMLP has considered offering wholesale decarbonization coaching services for clients in the future.

Concord Municipal Light Plant provides electric service to 6,995 residential and 1,280 commercial and municipal customers in the town of Concord. The utility does not generate any power, and therefore works to purchase as much energy as possible from non-emitting energy sources.

Energy New England is a joint action agency serving 29 utility providers across Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. Among other member services, ENE currently conducts HEAs for 20 members, oversees rebate programs for 12 members, and provides an electric vehicle support service for 12 communities.

APPA’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments program funds research, pilot projects, and education to improve the operations and services of public power utilities, with particular emphasis placed on the scalability and transferability of projects for other utilities. For more information on APPA’s DEED program, to become a DEED member, or to apply for a DEED grant, visit the DEED program’s webpage.