Ithaca Bets on Heat Pumps in Mobile Homes
Technically, Holly Hutchinson lives in Ithaca, New York, a university town in the Fingers Lakes region in the northern part of the state. But she also lives at an important intersection between two national crises: affordable housing and the race to stave off climate disaster.
She can tell you from experience that the housing dilemma is pushing more Americans into mobile homes; she lives in one herself.
“Like many places in the country, purchasing a home here has become just out of reach for so many of us,” she said. “What is the alternative? Well, mobile homes are relatively affordable.”
Mobile homes might be easier on the budget, but their energy use is massive.
That’s where Hutchinson’s day job comes in. She’s a coordinator at Finger Lakes Climate Fund and Sustainable Finger Lakes. She’s directing a program that gets heat pumps into mobile homes — one of the first in the United States.
Hutchinson has one in her own mobile home, installed after her propane furnace died last year.
Mobile homes are an often forgotten segment of the affordable housing market.
“We’ve had a lot of housing conversations for a long time in this county, but nobody ever talks about mobile homes,” said Gay Nicholson, president of Sustainable Finger Lakes. “We feel like there’s a population there that’s more and more vulnerable.”
The hope is to install heat pumps in 50 mobile homes in the area by the end of this year. The program is funded by a grant from Tompkins County, the county that encompasses Ithaca, and will help offset the costs of installing these heat pumps. Sustainable Finger Lakes will also help owners find other funding to pay for any remaining costs or in some cases access low-interest loans from the state. The goal is to make heat pumps as affordable as possible, according to Nicholson.
“I’m really grateful that New York State has finally embraced the reality that we are going to have to, as ratepayers or taxpayers, provide a helping hand to low-income people to transition their energy supply,” said Nicholson.
The heat pumps could have massive implications for energy efficiency — Nicholson estimates that mobile home owners use 70 percent more energy than people who live in other types of housing.
“So that means there’s a lot of energy poverty for low-income folks in those homes, and many of them are seniors who have, you know, maybe had to downsize out of their homes that they could no longer afford,” said Nicholson.
Mobile homes encompass a large amount of the affordable housing in the U.S., outpacing all other types of affordable housing according to Linda Shi, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Mobile homes roughly fall into two categories: older homes and newer prefabricated homes where the components for those houses are all made in factories and then built onsite. The difference is substantial and has implications for how resilient mobile home owners could be to climate change.
“For the older units, the quality of the housing and of the infrastructure may be significantly substandard,” said Shi. “And that can mean that they are less well insulated, so they are more exposed to heat and cold.”
Newer mobile homes are often better insulated and built, but they too are vulnerable to different climate events, including extreme heat and cold. Heat pumps can make a huge difference for homeowners.
“As the climate warms, we have hotter summers or longer periods of heat spells — having a heat pump that can cool as well as heat is just like the biggest benefit.” said Hutchinson.
Mobile homes are more vulnerable to almost every type of climate event that can occur, from flooding to extreme heat to hurricanes and tornadoes. After tornadoes leveled mobile home parks in Mississippi earlier this year, mobile home owners got another stark reminder of how susceptible they are to extreme weather caused by climate change.
As the country starts to shift off of fossil fuels, Hutchinson hopes that mobile home renters and owners are prioritized.
“The ideal is nobody’s left behind as we transition to this clean energy future that we talked about,” said Hutchinson.
Siri Chilukuri is a journalist based in Chicago who covers culture, labor, and climate change. She’s a 2023-2024 Grist Fellow in Environmental Justice.
Co-published with Grist.