Best of the West: Warming up to heat pumps; PILT funding; Space power; River restorations; and a rediscovered variety of apple

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting June 12, 2023. (Photos courtesy of vchalup, CalTech, and E.J. Brandt). 

With the price of natural gas rising, and billions in government funding available for high-efficiency home upgrades, demand for heat pumps (both air-source and ground-source) has skyrocketed throughout the region.

According to a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, as of 2020, nearly 18 million US households used heat pumps for space heating. This represents a 50 percent increase in heat pumps for heating compared with 2015. Given the fact that 15 states and over 100 local governments have enacted some form of building decarbonization commitments, regulations, and/or investments, RMI conservatively estimates that 12 million new heat pumps will be installed by 2030.

The residential tax incentives and the High Efficiency Electric Home Rebate program offered in the Inflation Reduction Act, the report added, could lead to another 9.5 million heat pumps deployed across the country.

These estimates were recently backed up in a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that shows residential heat pump sales exceeded gas furnaces for the first time in the U.S., making up 53% of heating system sales.

If this trend continues, the IEA estimates that switching to heat pumps could reduce global CO2 emissions by 500 million metric tons by 2030.

Interest in Boulder, Colorado for heat pumps has reached a point where the county’s Energy Smart program teamed up with EnergySage to give county residents access to information about contractors, comparison quotes for service and equipment, and third-party advice from experts on heat pumps. 

In Alaska, where many rural communities struggle with the rising costs of fuel, heat pumps have become so popular – especially as the technology improves to work better in the extreme cold -- that communities like Sitka have a shortage of workers able to install them.

The popularity of heat pumps in Texas picked up following the infamous cold snap in February 2021 that left entire communities without heat for days. The technology has only become more popular, according to Texas Climate News, which reported that a third of the 10 million households in Texas should qualify for the full heat-pump rebate based on the 80% Area Median Income threshold.  

Heat pump technology has proven so successful in Europe, where they’ve been using heat pumps for decades, that entire towns are now heated with giant heat pumps.

With pressure to move away from fossil fuels rising, even factories around the world are turning to heat pump technology to make food, dry paper and perform other industrial tasks that would otherwise require burning fossil fuels for energy. A heat pump system at Mars Inc.'s factory in Veghel, Netherlands, harvests heat radiating from its refrigerators to produce hot water. Channeling it through the factory’s network of pipes, the confectioner uses what would otherwise be wasted energy to help keep its syrup warm and chocolate molten.

PILT Funding: The Department of the Interior today announced that more than 1,900 state and local governments around the country will receive a total of $578.8 million in Payments in Lieu of Taxes funding for 2023. Because local governments cannot tax federal lands, annual PILT payments help to defray the costs associated with maintaining important community services. A full list of funding by state and county is available on the Department’s Payments in Lieu of Taxes page.   

Orphaned Wells Program: The U.S. Department of Interior rolled out its long-awaited Orphaned Wells Program Office for capping orphaned oil and gas wells on federal lands, a move that included the $63.8 million to cap wells in 16 states. The allocation is part of a total of $250 million provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to clean up orphaned well sites on federal public lands. This year’s funding nearly doubles the investment in reclamation efforts during the program’s first year, expanding existing projects and undertaking new initiatives from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. In addition to these projects led by federal bureaus, $560 million in initial grants was awarded to states last year to address orphaned oil and gas wells on state and private lands.

Space power: Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, have successfully harvested solar energy in space and wirelessly beamed it down to Earth using microwaves. While this idea has been experimented with since the 1970s, “no one has done this before,” Sanjay Vijendran, a space scientist at the European Space Agency, said. “They’re bringing credibility to the topic by demonstrating this capability.”

River restoration: EPA-funded water monitoring and conservation programs in Oklahoma have restored 96 previously impaired waterways by promoting regenerative agriculture, especially for minority farmers. Trey Lam, the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said the paperwork for farm loans and cost-share programs is overwhelming no matter what. But for producers without access to generational wealth or what Lam calls the “little club” of insider knowledge, navigating government programs is even more difficult. To address this issue the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project and the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts launched the C.A.R.E. Program in 2017, which provides cost sharing and guidance to minority farmers.

Rediscovered Apple: A lost apple variety has been rediscovered on the Salmon homestead of a famous 19th-century Chinese American. E.J. Brandt, of the Lost Apple Project, which scours old orchards and homesteads across the Northwest looking for forgotten apples, took samples from apple trees on the ranch in 2019. After DNA testing, scientists at Washington State University were unable to find any matches in their library of thousands of known apple varieties. The apple has been given the provisional name Polly Bemis.

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