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Economy

Biden’s Heat Pump Rebates Are Actually 100 Different Programs

“That’s going to cause confusion.”

President Biden sitting on a heat pump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It’s been nearly two years since the Inflation Reduction Act passed, and two of its programs designed to encourage home electrification and energy efficiency — worth a combined $8.8 billion — are still not operational.

The delay has already caused consternation among homeowners who can’t understand why they still don’t know when the rebates will be available or what they will cover. Now it’s becoming apparent that these programs could look quite different state by state.

This is, to some extent, by design. The rebates will be distributed by state governments, who must first apply to the Department of Energy for their share of the funding. Most states are still in the process of putting together their applications. The law laid out some rules for how these programs would work, e.g. which kinds of appliances and upgrades the rebates will subsidize and the maximum subsidy per appliance and per household. It also put restrictions on who could benefit from the programs, with most of the money earmarked for low- and moderate-income households. But it left plenty of flexibility for states to tailor the programs to their own needs.

That’s mostly a good thing. Many states already offer robust electrification and efficiency rebates, but their existing programs have major shortcomings. Apartment buildings, in particular, have been hard to reach — both because landlords have little incentive to make upgrades and because it’s much more complicated to retrofit a big apartment building than a single-family home. The IRA rebates create an opportunity to try and fill these kinds of gaps.

But the result is also, frankly, messy. The money is taking a long time to get out the door, and when it does the programs are going to be convoluted and challenging to communicate to consumers.This could turn out to be a missed opportunity for Biden. When the polling nonprofit Data for Progress asks voters about their greatest concerns relating to climate, they point to energy costs, pollution, and extreme weather. The IRA rebates are an opportunity to address these concerns, and 71% of voters support the programs — including majorities across party lines — according to the group’s surveys.

“Nobody would say that this rollout has been as fast as they would have wanted,” Sage Briscoe, the federal policy director for Rewiring America, told me. “But I’m hopeful that it's going to be really impactful, and at the end of the day, that’s the main thing.”

Information on how states are thinking about distributing the money is scarce. Some did extensive stakeholder engagement prior to submitting their applications and made their proposed plans public, while others are saving that process until after they apply. I combed through as much publicly available information as I could find and discovered a number of ways in which these rebate programs could diverge. The programs may go by different names in different states. Moreover, a heat pump discount in Maine may not exist in Rhode Island, or a family that qualifies for funding in Wisconsin may not have qualified had they lived in New Jersey.

Here are some of the big themes.

Same rebates, different names

The challenge in understanding these programs starts with their most basic feature. What are they called?

One of the programs will provide point-of-sale rebates on specific appliances and upgrades such as heat pumps, insulation, or a new electric panel. This was originally called the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act, or HEEHRA. Some states have continued to use that acronym. Others have adopted the name the Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates, or HEAR. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll use HEAR.)

The other program, which is a bit more complicated, provides rebates based on the amount of energy a home retrofit project saves. For example, if a homeowner implements a bunch of improvements that will reduce their energy consumption by at least 20%, they could get up to $4,000 back, while upgrades that result in a 35% reduction are eligible for up to $8,000. This was originally called the HOPE for HOMES Act, and many states simply refer to it as HOMES. Others prefer the title Home Efficiency Rebates, or HER. (To make things more confusing, the Department of Energy refers to its two programs together as the Home Energy Rebates and also uses the acronym HER. For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to this one as HOMES.)

Meanwhile, some states are funneling the money into their own pre-existing rebate programs or creating new programs with new names. For example, New York — the only state to have received funding under the IRA rebate programs so far— will distribute at least some of the HEAR money through its Empower+ program, which already helps low- and moderate-income households save energy. The state will be able to expand the program’s offerings to include paying for electrical upgrades needed to install heat pumps or induction stoves. Vermont wants to allocate most of the HOMES funding to its Weatherization Assistance Program, which is an older, federally funded, state-implemented efficiency program for low-income households. New Jersey is considering putting most of the funding from both pots toward a new program called M-RISE.

Ultimately, this could mean that many people who apply for or receive these rebates will have no idea that they’re benefiting from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

“That was baked in the cake the way the law was written,” Andy Frank, the founder of the home electrification company Sealed, told me. He said he thinks the bigger communication challenge will be when the first few states start launching their programs. Biden officials may take the opportunity to do a victory lap, inviting national press. People in other states may see the news and think they can get rebates too. “That’s going to cause confusion,” he said.

Briscoe acknowledged the branding challenge but said it was not the most important part of the legislation. “The most important thing is getting families the help that they need, and I think that’s rightfully where the emphasis has been,” she told me.

Variations in eligible technologies ...

Congress included a long list of technologies that would be eligible for discounts under the HEAR program: Heat pump space heaters, heat pump water heaters, heat pump clothes dryers, electric stoves, electric panels, electric wiring, insulation, air sealing, and ventilation systems.

While it seems that most states plan to copy and paste the whole list into their plans, a few are narrowing it down. Maine, for example, has proposed offering rebates only for heat pumps, plus electric wiring and panel upgrades if needed. Its draft strategic plan from January says that the state has alternative funding streams to sustain its existing programs for water heaters and insulation, and that the other appliances, like stoves and clothes dryers, “have less impact on home energy costs and carbon emissions.”

Rhode Island, on the other hand, may not allocate any of the funding for heat pumps. The state conducted a “gap analysis” to identify which of the technologies have the least funding support under its existing programs and determined that stoves, clothes dryers, electric panels, and wiring were the best use of the HEAR funds. That doesn’t mean Rhode Islanders wouldn’t be able to get rebates for heat pumps — the state energy office offers incentives, as do all of its utilities. It just means they wouldn’t be able to get more funding on top of what’s already offered.

Wisconsin, which is further behind these Northeast states in promoting electrification, is opting to make all of the technologies eligible. Though narrowing the list would extend the budget for each one, state officials noted, it would also “preclude the state from accelerating market adoption for those upgrades.”

... and eligible buildings

Congress restricted HEAR program funding to low-income households, defined as those making less than 80% of the area median income, and moderate-income households, or those making between 80% and 150% of the area median income. The HOMES program is not income-restricted, though states were instructed to offer higher rebates for low-income households.

There’s going to be a lot of variation between states regarding how much funding they dedicate to each income bracket. But there also may be some variation in the types of buildings that are eligible.

Maine has proposed dedicating 100% of the funding under the HOMES program and much of the funding under HEAR to multifamily buildings. For the HEAR program, it might also prioritize subsidizing heat pump retrofits in manufactured housing, formerly referred to as “mobile homes.” That means if you’re a single family homeowner in Maine, you probably won’t benefit from the program — although Maine already has extensive subsidies for single-family homes and has completed more than 100,000 heat pump retrofits since 2019.

“They're taking this funding to try and move beyond that section of housing and open up robust programs for areas where they still have really high need,” said Briscoe.

New Jersey has proposed a similar approach, dedicating 100% of HOMES funding and 85% of HEAR funding to multifamily buildings in low-income neighborhoods. The remaining 15% will go toward an existing state program called Comfort Partners that subsidizes energy efficiency measures to expand its offerings to heat pumps, electrical panels, wiring, and water heaters.

Sealed and Rewiring America are both working on tools to help consumers and contractors navigate all of this confusion. Frank told me Sealed was developing software for contractors that will help them determine customer eligibility and calculate total savings at the point of sale, and then process the rebate paperwork as quickly and easily as possible. Rewiring America is building what it intends to be a user-friendly calculator in which a homeowner will be able to enter their zip code and income and get information about all of the programs they are eligible for, including state, local, and utility-run offerings.

People are confused and upset

Or at least Californians are. Dozens have written to the California Energy Commission to ask when the rebates will be available, whether they will qualify, or to express their frustration with how long it’s taking to get the program up and running.

Consider the following comment submitted in April by Kristen Talley, a homeowner who wants to replace her gas furnace with an electric heat pump. “We’d hoped to do the project last fall … and we can’t proceed until the rebates are available,” she wrote. “Please establish criteria and make applications available NOW!!! It’s crazy that it's taken this long!”

Richard Pellin, a 77-year-old retiree who does not have enough income to qualify for the tax credits, wrote that he wants to install a new heat pump system so that he can have air conditioning. “We suffered badly last year from the summer heat … Waiting until the state programs are ready to issue rebates would cause us to suffer longer,” he said. He implored the commission to allow the rebates to be claimed retroactively, warning that otherwise there might be “a surge of activity when rebates are approved” that will tax supply chains and labor and cause further delays. (The Department of Energy has specified that the HEAR rebates cannot be claimed retroactively, but it may be possible for the HOMES rebates.)

Some of this frustration is misplaced. California submitted its application for the HEAR program in January and is waiting on the Department of Energy to approve it. In the meantime, it may even be possible that Talley and Pellin are eligible for existing California rebate programs, though discounts through those are significantly lower.

Another public comment from Richard Bailey had the subject line: “Time is of the essence.” Bailey warned that the rebates could be “canceled, denied, delayed, etc” if Trump was elected. “Much is at risk. Do not delay,” he wrote.

I asked Briscoe how much of a risk this was. She said it would require an act of Congress to cancel the programs — in other words, it’s not something Trump could do on day one. Even then, money that’s already been awarded to states cannot be clawed back. Fifteen states have already submitted their applications, and are expected to receive funding by the end of the year.

“Hopefully, we can get a lot of these applications in and processed before any new administration were to take over,” said Briscoe.

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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