Renewable Juneau invests carbon offset funds in free heat pumps in local homes

These controls are one part of an oil-burning furnace system at Ben Nestler’s home in the Mendenhall Valley in Juneau, pictured here on Oct. 25, 2019. Nestler hopes to get a new, zero-emissions air-source heat pump and have the furnace as a backup. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Renewable Juneau is close to awarding its first round of zero-emissions home heating systems and hopes to have at least two installed by the end of the year.

The nonprofit will pay for them through donations it has been collecting since June 28. The donors pay specifically to offset the impact of their greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Renewable Juneau has high hopes that their Juneau Carbon Offset project can scale up and put a big dent in the capital city’s greenhouse gas emissions and local families’ heating bills.

One of the people who applied to get a new home heating system is Ben Nestler. He owns and operates a pet grooming and boarding business from his home in the Mendenhall Valley.

“We are interested in getting a new heat pump installed in our home in order to cut back on our energy usage and reduce our carbon footprint,” he said.

Nestler’s four-bedroom house was built in the 1970s. It has an oil-burning furnace that pipes heated water to baseboards around the house. He’s got a family of four humans, plus “two owned ferrets, we have one owned dog, we have four owned cats. And we have about seven or eight dogs today that are boarding with us that that will go home at the end of the day, and then we have an additional four doggies that are staying overnight with us tonight.”

A furnace on the other side of this wall at Ben Nestler’s home in the Mendenhall Valley in Juneau burns fuel from this tank to heat his house on Oct. 25, 2019. It cost him nearly $4,300 to keep this tank full over a year. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

That’s a lot of warm bodies in the house, but with his thermostat usually set at 70 degrees, his furnace still burned 1,346 gallons of oil over a year. It cost him $4,267.

He’s improved the house’s insulation and looked for cheaper heating options, including an air-source heat pump like the one Renewable Juneau is offering. Air-source heat pumps basically draw some energy off of outside air and circulate that energy inside as heat.

Nestler said he expects to save up to 70% on his heating bills with an air-source heat pump. The hang-up is that getting a new system would cost a lot upfront.

He said he already had a multiyear plan to save up for one. But then he saw a story in the Juneau Empire about Renewable Juneau looking to install heat pumps in qualified homes.

“I downloaded the application from their website and sent it in,” Nestler said. “Within just a couple of weeks. Andy Romanoff contacted me. … And so we sent all our tax returns and all that good stuff. And now we’re waiting for the final — whether we get approved or not.”

One of the eligibility requirements is that the household income falls below 80% of the median.

Andy Romanoff is a Renewable Juneau board member and the lead on its carbon offset project. Romanoff said the selection committee has a lot of paperwork to go through.

“You know, some tax information, some income verification, home ownership verification and utility history, oil bill history and electrical use history that — it’s going to take a little while,” he said.

Funding for the heat pump program comes mostly from Renewable Juneau’s carbon offset website. The nonprofit doesn’t have any paid staff, so it relies on volunteer work and outreach. So far, Romanoff said it’s mostly locals who’ve paid into the carbon offset fund.

“We’ve been averaging a few thousand dollars a month in carbon offset sales,” Romanoff said. “And that’s really without any sort of marketing or any big push to the tourism industry or local businesses. We’ve been working on that of course, but we haven’t really gone hog wild with it yet, and we’re planning on it this winter.”

He wants to tap into Juneau’s huge tourism industry next season. The website is ready for individual businesses and travelers, with dollar estimates teed up to offset the carbon costs of destination air travel and cruise ship travel, plus tours on helicopters, floatplanes and boats.

“This could really grow, could become kind of overwhelming, which is sort of what we want,” he said. “It’s a problem we’d like to deal with.”

Phil Isaak, of Ike's Fuel finishes topping off a heating oil tank on November 15, 2018, in Juneau, Alaska. Isaak says costs in Alaska don't really match up well with heating fuel costs in the rest of the country. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska's Energy Desk)

Phil Isaak of Ike’s Fuel tops off a heating oil tank in Juneau in 2018. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Renewable Juneau has an informal goal of converting 100 homes to heat pumps a year. That would help reach an ambitious renewable energy goal that city policymakers set to get to 80% renewable energy by 2045.

“It’s climate action, it’s energy action, it’s economic stability, keeps the money here in town. Doesn’t ship it out for, you know, oil companies down south or overseas or wherever all that’s going,” Romanoff said.

Theoretically, heat pumps could impact local heating oil suppliers — by putting them out of business.

Phil Isaak manages Juneau’s biggest one: Ike’s Fuel.

“Yeah, we’ve lost a few customers to those,” Isaak said. “Sure, yeah. Not many. Half a dozen, maybe? But I can’t — you know, we’ve had some come back, too, a couple come back.”

He hasn’t seen fuel sales drop off over time. His dad founded the business in 1966.

“This is the busiest October we’ve ever had,” he said.

Which is strange, given Juneau’s fairly stagnant population, long-standing push to become more energy-efficient, and hydropower improvements over the years.

Isaak jokes, it’s because he prays a lot.

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