Bay State needs oil heat efficiency fund

NEEP has worked long and hard on whole-building, all-fuel energy efficiency solutions. Recently the Boston Globe ran Natalie Hildt's opinion piece in its online section called The Podium. Below is the full text. It’s a heartbreaking but all-too familiar story: hardworking, self-sufficient family falls on tough times. Wife is disabled, husband loses good-paying job. And then, the ancient oil boiler finally dies, at the worst possible time. At a recent planning summit on energy efficiency in Massachusetts, a crowd of 250 heard this account, delivered by a brave woman from Randolph. A family friend who is an oil dealer told the couple about help provided by National Grid and the local Community Action agency. The income-eligible programs provided significant help so the couple was able to install an efficient new boiler, replace a few windows and light bulbs, get more insulation to keep the heat in, and even retire the inefficient, 37-year-old Harvest Gold refrigerator that made that “funny birdie sound” the family joked about. This story has a happy ending. But for many struggling with drafty homes and inefficient heating equipment, help isn’t always so easy to come by. Massachusetts has nation-leading efficiency programs for electric and natural gas customers. But 30 percent of state residents — more than 950,000 households — heat with oil, at a cost of about $2.5 billion a year. Since the typical oil boiler is about 30 years old and highly inefficient, that’s a lot of money going up the chimney each winter. For those folks served by a municipal utility company who are struggling but not quite poor enough to get federal fuel assistance, they could be out of luck. Municipal energy efficiency programs are an uneven patchwork, with many such communities offering no energy efficiency assistance, and with very little in the way of thermal assistance. In some of the more rural towns of the 41 municipal electric companies, just about everyone gets their fuel delivered (propane and wood make up a small percentage of homes). Since heating oil is unregulated, there has never been a sufficient, sustained, and reliable source of funding to help people who heat with oil to weatherize their homes or get rebates on efficient new furnaces or boilers. Some assistance is available from the regulated electric utilities through Mass Save, but the utilities have no specific oil-saving goals, with any savings viewed pretty much as an added bonus on top of electric savings targets agreed to by the state. Rebates for oil equipment are modest and in some cases difficult to uncover. This means that a lot of poor and moderate-income people are thanking their stars for the recent mild winter. Thankfully, momentum is building to bring efficiency options to all Bay State residents with a proposal sponsored by the chairman of the Joint Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, Democratic Representative John Keenan of Salem, which has as its centerpiece the creation of an oil heat efficiency fund that would subsidize more efficient equipment for oil customers. The bill, which is awaiting action by the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, would be coordinated with the existing programs run by the regulated gas and electric utilities through Mass Save. As proposed, the fund would generate about $20 million a year that would in turn lower consumers’ energy bills by more than $120 million. Over the course of a year, each home that upgrades would also curtail carbon emissions by more than half the amount spewed by a typical automobile. The Massachusetts Oilheat Council, the statewide oil dealers association, has joined to push for this legislation alongside low-income advocates, energy service companies, and clean energy and environmental groups — demonstrating broad-based support for a policy to bring cost-effective energy efficiency to all in the state. With funding for heating and weatherization assistance perpetually on the chopping block at the federal level, creating a state oil efficiency fund will mean strong and stable program funding for low-income people as well as expanded services for the many thousands of homes, businesses, and local buildings that heat with oil. Finding a way to extend programs to oil heat customers is critical to helping residents save energy and increase comfort — while also making progress on broader goals such as reducing dependence on foreign oil and curbing carbon emissions. Let’s hope that Massachusetts can get it done this year, and once again lead the nation in creating smart, cost-effective energy efficiency policies and programs. Natalie Hildt is public policy outreach manager at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships. She can be reached at Boston Globe subscribers can read the original post here.

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