Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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Puget Sound Energy rethinks pilot program to move people off natural gas


SEATTLE — After drawing criticism from environmental and clean power advocates, Puget Sound Energy is rethinking the structure of a $15 million pilot program that could help boost the use of heat pumps and other electric appliances.

The pilot program targets some 10,000 customers, and would include a mix of financial incentives, home energy evaluations and education under a settlement agreement reached last year as PSE sought approval of rate increases. PSE is supposed to engage those customers through “at least two” of these measures, according to the settlement.

PSE, the state’s largest energy utility, serves some 1.2 million electric customers and 850,000 customers with natural gas.

The utility’s initial proposal for the pilot was outlined in a meeting earlier this month with representatives of the Sierra Club, Front and Centered and the NW Energy Coalition, three groups that negotiated the settlement with PSE.

It called for about 200 low-income customers with heavy energy burdens to receive substantial financial assistance to install heat pumps and possibly other electrical appliances. Those customers, and another 800, would receive extensive evaluations of what it would take to electrify their homes.

Other customers targeted in the pilot program would receive education about electrification and opportunities for incentives from state, federal or other sources, according to the initial plans disclosed in the meeting.

That plan got pushback from representatives of the three groups who expected more people to be able to receive either financial incentives or energy assessments of their homes.

In a joint statement, they said PSE’s plans failed to meet the terms of the settlement. “We expect PSE to implement the settlement in a way that makes a meaningful start toward electrifying buildings in its service territory, and so far it isn’t doing that.”

PSE communication manager Melanie Coon, in a written statement this week, said “the numbers previously provided were preliminary and we are updating them as we get feedback from stakeholders and refine the scope of the pilot … At this point, it’s premature to say exactly how many customers will be included in each component of the project.”

In the next two decades, PSE will have to make a major shift away from natural gas in heating and generating electricity, under state laws that seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

Coon said that under the settlement, some of the $15 million needs to pay for a study on decarbonizing PSE systems and development of a broader strategy for heat pumps and other electrification.

But most of the money will be spent on the pilot.

“We are excited about the pilot because it will provide real-time, real-life information about what it takes to convert customers, and under the barriers they face accessing heat pump technology,” Coon said.

She said the focus would be on customers who typically couldn’t afford to install the systems.

In Olympia, lawmakers are considering legislation to invest state funds to provide financial assistance for low- and moderate-income households and small businesses to install high-efficiency heat pumps. House Bill 1147 would provided $80 million in revenue for this effort. The money would be raised by the Climate Commitment Act, which requires some major greenhouse gas emitters to purchase allowances to cover this pollution.