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Natick - Local Town Pages

The Heat Pump Revolution

By Sean Sullivan
Electricity is the great equalizer in terms of energy consumption. Electrons flowing through wires have the potential to transform power usage to the same extent that our digital age revolutionized all forms of media.
Vinyl records may represent a fun foray into nostalgia, but the present and future of music is digital. The preference of people will always trend toward the portable and practical, for toting a nearly unlimited selection of songs in one’s pocket over shelves stuffed with records or CDs.
Similarly, the old oil or gas-fired basement burner is replaced by an electric heater. Fueling up for a daily commute means trading in trips to a gas station for the charging station. Cooking increasingly entails swapping the home-polluting gas stove for an electric model.
Electrical energy can be transmitted across continents almost instantaneously. Contrast that with liquid fuels that must be extracted, refined and shipped to all corners of the globe.
Well duh, a reader might say - we’ve been using electricity to make things run for a century-plus. True, but fossil fuels remain a familiar, reliable and alluring way of powering our lives. Problem is, they’re also making life less livable on planet earth.
Enter the heat pump. It’s one of the latest gadgets to catch on in recent years. The devices employ an endothermic reaction to absorb heat, just as old-school air conditioners have done throughout homes for over a half-century. Heat is drawn from the air and shunted outside through vents, while the resultant cooler air is retained, redirected back within the walls.
Heat pumps differ in that they are designed to reverse that process during colder months, retaining warm air while dumping the chill out of doors.
“Heat pumps now are a really great option,” said Jillian Wilson-Martin, Director of Sustainability for the town.
Also a Natick resident, she has recently adopted the technology to help heat and cool her home.
But getting people to invest time and money in adopting new technology, to replace legacy infrastructure they’ve used their whole lives, can be a hurdle.       
“Talking about home energy can be boring,” said Wilson-Martin, if not done practically and tactically.
“About thirty percent of Natick’s emissions come from the energy we use in our homes,” she pointed out. Utilizing a more efficient and price-stable form of energy can reduce the cost of powering a home. The classic pocketbook-issue tactic.
Talking up the technology is another way to get people interested in heat pumps, said Wilson-Martin, an approach that can work especially well with a male audience.
“Often the cool tech is the good angle,” to get guys interested. “Natick dads are a key target audience because they often lead HVAC-related decisions and projects in their homes.”
But ultimately, necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, implementation. 
“Realistically, the transition is to heat pumps over time, as boilers age or AC systems need to be replaced. When that happens, we want homeowners - dads, moms, whoever the decision-maker is - to consider heat pumps as a potential replacement.”
Toward that end, Wilson-Martin has worked to organize an outreach event designed to teach residents about the benefits of adopting heat pump technology.
On June 26th, Natick’s Community Senior Center will host a “Heat Pump Party” at 6:30 p.m. There, in addition to free pizza, attendees will be given a presentation highlighting the technology, how residents might benefit from bringing it into their homes and businesses.
Heat pumps can be up to three-to-four times more efficient than even new models of gas and oil-fired systems, said Mark Ralston. He’s a Natick dad and volunteer “heat pump coach,” who will be giving a presentation at the party.
“Heat pumps are going to play a major role,” in the world’s energy transition, he said, owing to their efficiency and utility.  
That efficiency, said Ralston, derives from the way heat pumps process energy. They don’t generate heat, per se, the way a hair dryer or toaster does. In those gadgets, electrons run through coils that resist the flow of electricity, whose by-product is heat.
Heat pumps, in contrast, absorb ambient heat already present in the air. Even amidst the depths of New England winter, there’s heat energy to be harvested from the frigid outdoors. The thermal reaction inside a heat pump culls that warmth and brings it inside a home.
“That’s kind of the magic,” said Ralston.
Heat pumps come in all sizes, even versions that sit within the threshold windows like a classic air-conditioning unit. Other models can be spliced into existing air ducts to supplement a gas or oil-fired system.     
At some hopefully not too far-flung point in the future, it will make as much sense to keep relying on liquid fuels as it would to illuminate our homes and businesses by candlelight. For the health of people and the planet, the arrival of that sea change can’t come soon enough.      
Yet electrifying the world represents just half the task of transforming a polluting and climate-warming energy system into a cleaner and greener way of living. While the way we power our lives becomes ever more reliant on electrons, the way we generate that energy matters enormously.
So as we phase out the personal use of fossil fuels over time, ever more of the electrical energy we consume must come from cleaner sources – nuclear, solar and wind, just to name the big three.
And in the meantime, getting as many people as possible on board with the energy revolution is the order of the day. The future is digital was a relatively recent refrain. That future seems to have largely arrived. Ensuring that the future is also electrical will require convincing constituencies beyond those already converted. 
 “We want to find ways to reach more people,” said Wilson-Martin. “We don’t want to keep preaching to the choir.”