Massachusetts advocates say proposed statewide energy efficiency plan falls short on equity

Massachusetts advocates say proposed statewide energy efficiency plan falls short on equity

Massachusetts environmental justice advocates say the $5 billion statewide energy efficiency plan that could take effect next year needs to do even more to reach low-income residents, renters, and other populations who have traditionally received fewer benefits.  

The plan, which will guide efficiency programming from 2025 through 2027, outlines wide-ranging initiatives that would support weatherization and heat pumps for homes and small businesses, improve the customer experience with more timely rebate processing and increased multilingual support, and expand the energy efficiency workforce. The proposed plan calls out equity as a major priority. 

“There have certainly been some changes in this latest draft we’re pleased to see, but there is definitely a lot more that needs to be done, especially in the realms of equity and affordability and justice,” said Priya Gandbhir, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “The good news is we’re still working on this, so there’s some time for improvement.”

Massachusetts has long been considered a leader in energy efficiency, ranking at or near the top of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s annual State Energy Efficiency Scorecard for more than 10 years. The core of the state’s efficiency efforts is Mass Save, a partnership between gas and electric utilities, created in 2008, that provides education, energy audits, rebates on efficient appliances, low and no-cost weatherization services, and financing for efficiency projects.

Mass Save programming is guided by the three-year energy efficiency plans put forth by the major utilities in collaboration with the state Energy Efficiency Advisory Council, and approved by state public utilities regulators. Over the past several years, legislation has required that Mass Save prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than focusing only on using less energy. 

“Mass Save needs to be a tool not just for energy efficiency but also for decarbonization,” said Hessann Farooqi, executive director of the Boston Climate Action Network. 

Strides toward equity

In recent years, there has also been an effort to ensure the benefits of Mass Save programs are distributed equitably. A 2020 study by the utilities found that communities with lower incomes, higher proportions of residents of color, and more renters were far less likely to have used Mass Save services. 

Following this report, the three-year plan covering 2022 to 2024 included several provisions intended to address these disparities, including a 50% higher budget for income-eligible services, financial incentives for utilities to serve lower-income households, and grants to community organizations that can help connect residents to information about Mass Save benefits. 

The plan’s focus on equity was hailed by advocates. 

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in production and service and savings because of the increased budget,” said Brian Beote, an Energy Efficiency Advisory Council member and director of energy efficiency operations for housing security nonprofit Action Inc. “We’ve been able to bring on more contractors and serve more households.”

This latest plan continues the focus on equity for underserved populations in several ways. The draft plan increases the budget for services to income-eligible households, defined as those with incomes below 80% of the area median, from roughly $600 million to nearly $1 billion, the highest number ever proposed. 

The draft plan also attempts to simplify the process of obtaining benefits for residents in areas that have been marginalized in the past. The plan identifies 21 “equity communities” – municipalities in which more than 35% of residents are renters and more than half of households qualify as low or moderate income. Residents in these communities would be eligible for no-cost weatherization and electrification, often without income verification, and rental properties would be able to receive low-cost weatherization and electrification services.

This approach might mean higher-income customers receive no-cost services they might otherwise have had to pay for, but supporters say the likely benefits outweigh this possibility. 

“On balance, we’re going to get more of those low- to moderate-income customers and that is really a key goal,” Farooqi said.

In addition, the proposed plan would expand the Community First Partnership program, which provides funding to nonprofits and municipalities to target outreach and education about Mass Save’s offerings, using their knowledge of their communities and populations. 

Missed opportunities

Still, the plan misses several opportunities to make even greater strides toward equity, advocates said. At the heart of their argument are funding levels: The budget for low- and moderate-income services is about 19% of the total budget, even as nearly half of the state’s households fall into that category. 

“We just need to be making sure that we are distributing the benefits of this program proportionally to where people are actually at in the population,” Farooqi said. 

The plan’s targets for heat pump installations are another point of contention. The plan calls for installing 115,000 heat pumps during the plan period, with 16,000 of these going to low- and moderate-income households. This target is not nearly high enough, advocates said.

“That’s a major failure,” said Mary Wambui-Ekop, an energy justice activist and co-chair of the Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee’s equity working group. “They definitely need to increase that target to 30,000, and even that is really low.”

Switching from gas heating to heat pumps at current high electricity rates could increase costs for customers, so it is also important that the push to electrify heating for lower-income residents focus on households currently using higher-emissions, higher-cost fuels like heating oil or propane, Wambui-Ekop said. 

In Massachusetts, some 800,000 households use heating oil and propane; more than 151,000 of these households fall within the plan’s designated equity communities. 

“If they switch to heat pumps, they will see their energy bills go down, their energy burdens will go down, they will have good indoor air quality, and the commonwealth will benefit because of the greenhouse gas reductions,” Wambui-Ekop said. 

Advocates are also waiting to see the details for the plans to expand the Community First Partnership program. At current levels, the funding can pay a part-time energy staffer at a modest rate, which can make it difficult to find and keep qualified employees, said Susan Olshuff, a town liaison with Ener-G-Save, a Community First Partner organization in western Massachusetts. She’s gone through six different staffers since the program began and is anxiously waiting to see the final funding that comes out of the new plan.

“I like to think it will be enough,” she said, “but I am nervous to see what numbers they come down on.”

The final plan will be submitted to the state in October. Public utilities regulators will then be able to approve the plan as a whole, or to suggest modifications. Advocates are hoping to see an even more equitable plan filed and approved. 

“The people who can afford to do it will do it on their own,” Gandbhir said. “We need to make sure that people who are renting or who aren’t able to afford the upfront costs are provided with the assistance that’s needed.”

Massachusetts advocates say proposed statewide energy efficiency plan falls short on equity is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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