Among the excellent sessions at the NEEP Air Source Heat Pump workshop was a presentation by Peter McPhee, Director of Clean Heating and Cooling for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). The MassCEC has run a program to support Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) technology since May 2017. VRF is a type of air source heat pump that can serve many commercial building types and larger residential buildings by moving heating or cooling through refrigerant lines rather than large air ducts. It typically has one outside unit that can serve multiple interior units while providing individual zone control within the building. The program was designed to help develop the VRF industry in Massachusetts and is winding down after awarding about $6,000,000 in incentives to help build initial market demand. Peter discussed some key findings from the initiative.
The first takeaway is that VRF is a viable, broadly applicable low-carbon heating solution for commercial buildings. The program found that market demand exists today, that industry supply chain is robust, and that the technology is sufficiently advanced to support further market development. Challenges include a lack of VRF awareness among the public and building industry. His report noted that, going forward, VRF needs to be an option for all commercial building new construction and remodeling.
A second conclusion is that VRF is new and complex. It requires some changes in thought around project design, including precise sizing. Cost savings are dependent on application variables such as heating fuel type and timing of engagement in the building development, e.g. remodeling and new construction design phase. Working this new technology into design, construction, and operational processes is complex and will require time and support.
A third takeaway is that providing incentives is complicated but has benefits. One factor for program design is how to support best practices in sizing and installation. Another factor is how to integrate VRF technology with weatherization and on-site renewables. VRFs offer exceptional greenhouse gas benefits but may increase operational costs. Still, upfront installation costs may be lower than alternatives. Reducing carbon may not follow the typical energy efficiency program protocol of higher first costs following by savings over time. The benefits are different, and new metrics to judge the success of programs and to guide incentive design may be needed.
Peter noted that the VRF program is an early program at the beginning of a long pathway to building decarbonization. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for 100,000 heat pumps by 2030. The MassCEC is interested in sharing lessons learned and best practices with other states and utilities, and called for regional collaboration to help ensure that building decarbonization in done correctly. A copy of Peter’s slides and many other presentations are available on the NEEP website.