Incentive programs designed to encourage people to install heat pumps in P.E.I. homes are having a big impact, but the government says it is a long way from stepping on the brakes.
"Right now we're still in aggression mode," said Derek Ellis, director of the sustainability division at the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action. "We want to speed up the fuel switching process on P.E.I. and reduce emissions across the board."
The government began offering incentives to Islanders to install heat pumps back in 2015-16, as part of plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on P.E.I.
At the time, according to Statistics Canada, only about 10 per cent of Islanders reported using heat pumps as a primary heating source, as opposed to methods like oil furnaces, wood stoves, or electric baseboards.
By 2021, the most recent year available in the biennial survey, that had increased to 27 per cent. Meanwhile, across Canada, only six per cent of homes reported using heat pumps as a primary heating source.
Heat pumps come with benefits beyond reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, says Derek Ellis. (Julien Lecacheur/Radio-Canada)
Since that 2021 survey, the P.E.I. government has supported the installation of thousands of additional heat pumps.
From April of last year through to July of this year, 7,330 pumps were installed through the incentive program that is available for all Islanders, which offers a $1,200 rebate. Another 7,000 pumps have been installed since December 2021 through a program that offers free heat pumps to low-income Islanders.
Those numbers don't show how often multiple heat pumps have been installed in one household, or capture homes where heat pumps aren't considered a primary source of heat.
The quality of the heat pumps and their dependability at cold temperatures has improved fairly dramatically... We're going from heat pumps that may or may not work at all at –15, –20 Celsius, to heat pumps that are operating quite efficiently at these temperatures. — Derek Ellis
But given there are about 54,000 households on P.E.I., it would be a fair guess to say about half of Island homes have moved away from heating oil to heat pumps — up from 10 per cent in just six years, for a 500 per cent increase.
Technology improvements making a difference
The P.E.I. Energy Corporation's annual survey in 2022 found 47 per cent of Island households were using heat pumps. That survey is a little different from the StatCan survey, which asks about primary heat sources.
Ellis said the incentives have been helpful, but they are not the only factor in the change.
Heat pump technology has improved, says Derek Ellis. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)
"The quality of the heat pumps and their dependability at cold temperatures has improved fairly dramatically," said Ellis.
"In 10 years, we're going from heat pumps that may or may not work at all at –15, –20 Celsius, to heat pumps that are operating quite efficiently at these temperatures. The public and the market is responding to that, that trust in the technology."
Beyond greenhouse gas
As a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the Island, getting heat pumps installed in homes has proven to be low-hanging fruit.
"The technology is clearly deployable. It's affordable," said Ellis. "In some sectors, emission reductions of this volume are really difficult to achieve."
And the benefits go beyond greenhouse gas emissions, he said. Heat pumps are a less expensive way to heat your home, and so they are providing Islanders with savings at a time when they're dealing with the highest inflation in decades.
In addition, they provide cooling in the summer. This was a big health benefit during the heat wave in July, Ellis pointed out.
With climate change underway, heat waves are expected to become more common.
Earlier this year, demand for the province's free heat-pump program had created a backlog Islanders waiting to have one installed. Ellis said more crews are now working on the program and the province has caught up, so the current wait is about three weeks.
While the incentive programs will eventually wind down, Ellis said he expects that is still years away.