Boiler and heat pump. (Robert Kneschke via Canva)

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Save the Sound, and the Conservation Law Foundations released a report today drawing attention to the role HVAC and water heating equipment have on the state’s air quality. 

According to the report, a massive 23% of Connecticut’s NOx pollution is generated by burning gas, oil, and propane in furnaces and water heaters. This number is more than eight times the pollution caused by the state’s power plants. The report suggests that a potential solution lies in setting stringent air quality standards for homes and buildings, a step that could also save residents money over time.

“The state limits pollution from vehicles, power plants, and other key drivers of smog, but no equivalent standards currently exist for HVAC and water heating equipment. Closing this loophole is essential to achieve cleaner air in Connecticut,” said Shannon Laun, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Connecticut.

The findings come as regulators at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) work to develop the state’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy (CES). The groups suggest that as part of the CES, DEEP could recommend that only non-polluting HVAC and water heating equipment such as electric heat pumps be installed in homes after 2030.

“Pollution-free technologies like heat pumps can meet Connecticut households’ heating needs, even in frigid temperatures, without fueling our state’s air quality crisis. When polluting HVAC and water equipment burns out, it should be replaced with pollution-free alternatives. It’s that simple,” said Samantha Dynowksi, state director, Sierra Club Connecticut.

However, critics like Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, argue that the data and conclusions drawn are misleading. 

Herb said the claims made in the report do not come from government agencies. He said ozone, often referred to as smog and connected to heating equipment in the report, is a summer issue and irrelevant to winter heating systems. Furthermore, Herb said the report cites a source that claims heating systems contribute to less than 15% of total NOx, indicating that shifting from oil-fired heating systems to alternatives like heat pumps will not adequately address the ozone issue.

The report also touches upon fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Critics highlight that Connecticut drastically reduced sulfur content in heating oil in 2018, which directly reduces particulate emissions from heating oil burners.

Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the transition to biofuels, which lower emissions by up to 75%, is a notable development overlooked by the report. Critics believe the report’s recommendations could be costly for electric ratepayers and particularly burden low and middle-income families.

The environmental groups say that state incentives and soon-to-be available federal incentives can support Connecticut households in accessing money-saving heat pumps, although more funds are necessary to meet the scale of the need. Energize Connecticut offers up to $15,000 in combined incentives for residents to upgrade to a residential air-source heat pump. Starting next year, low-income homeowners will also be able to take advantage of federal incentives of up to $8,000 in rebates for air-source heat pumps, up to $2,500 for electrical wiring, and up to $1,600 for weatherization through the Inflation Reduction Act.

“The heating oil bills many Connecticut households saw this winter were simply staggering.

Policymakers need to do more to support low-income households in accessing energy-saving technologies that can lower their monthly bills, while benefiting all Connecticut residents through cleaner air, and a more stable climate,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney, Save the Sound.