Massachusetts’ new three-year energy efficiency plan would significantly step up efforts to reduce energy bills and improve the health and comfort of low-income households and colored residents.
The $ 668 million plan, pending approval from the state’s Department of Public Utilities, sets out strategies the state’s energy efficiency program aims to implement from 2022 to 2024. This includes provisions to increase reach and eligibility in underserved communities – and pay utilities to provide more services in those neighborhoods.
“They say, ‘Let’s find out how we can ensure that everyone who pays into the program has access to and can benefit from the program,'” said Eugenia Gibbons, climate policy director for Health Care Without Harm in Massachusetts. “The plan is a good step forward.”
For more than a decade, Massachusetts’ energy efficiency programs have been recognized as some of the most advanced and effective in the country. At the heart of the government’s effort is Mass Save, an electric and gas supplier collaboration that offers free energy audits, discounts on efficient appliances, discounts on weathering, and other energy efficiency services that are funded by a small fee on consumer electricity bills.
The programming of Mass Save is based on three-year plans for energy efficiency, a system introduced by the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act 2008.
However, proponents have long said that these programs are insufficient when it comes to serving members of environmental justice communities. While some had dismissed these concerns as just anecdotal, a Study 2020 demonstrated by the utilities that residents in municipalities with more colored, fewer English speakers, more tenants and lower household income services of Mass Save received at much lower prices than those in wealthier, whiter areas.
“It confirmed what the advocates and people of these neighborhoods said,” said Mary Wambui-Ekop, member of the Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee’s Justice Working Group that leads the creation of the three-year plans.
The new plan addresses these concerns better than any other, proponents said.
The plan calls for a $ 6 million investment to expand work with community groups and communities to increase participation in historically underserved areas. Community groups already working in these neighborhoods can provide Mass Save with valuable perspectives on language barriers, cultural differences, and economic problems so that utilities can tailor their strategies to specific areas.
“Community-based organizations can identify location-based approaches to engaging residents in these programs,” said Ruth Georges, supervisor of equity, strategic partnerships and people development at Eversource, one of the utility companies that manages Mass Save.
The plan also changes the structure of incentives paid to utilities, making it financially rewarding to work with underserved communities than previous plans. In preparing the last three-year plan, the 2019 to 2021 covering, the state rejected a proposed incentive, the utilities would have paid $ 20 for each tenant, which she rendered with efficiency services. The thought was that this mechanism would contribute to the achievement of low-income households, colored communities and families with limited English proficiency, as these groups tend to rent at higher prices.
However, the state argued that the utilities were already being incentivized for every household served, so that extra money would mean paying twice for the same services.
To avoid that objection this time around, the plan proposes a separate benefit incentive for middle-income customers and residents of 38 communities across the state that are designated environmental justice areas. Almost $ 24 million is earmarked for electricity utilities and $ 15 million for gas utilities. These totals represent tariffs that are 20% higher than the standard for electrical services and 55% higher for gas.
“So these particular communities are essentially going to get extra attention,” said Amy Boyd, Acadia Center policy director and advisory board member.
The plan also provides $ 136 million to provide services to middle-income residents. Existing programs offer certain benefits for low-income households, such as free insulation and heating renovation. However, some families earn too much to qualify for these offers but would still find it difficult to afford the up-front costs for a heat pump or new insulation.
The plan defines this group as households earning more than 60% but less than 80% of the median household income for the area; for 2021, this equates to a range of $ 78,751 to $ 101,041 for a four-person household. The aim is to double the number of weathering jobs performed annually for middle-income households by 2024, a net increase of 700%.
Personnel development is another important goal of the plan. Even without implementing this ambitious new plan, Massachusetts is already short of an energy efficiency workforce. However, this void provides an opportunity for green justice residents to gain an education in the field, develop solid careers, while helping advance the state’s energy efficiency goals inside and outside their neighborhoods. At the same time, it creates awareness and trust when residents of underserved communities see that their neighbors are working on energy efficiency.
The plan would implement what is known as the Clean Energy Pathways program, which trains candidates for careers in energy efficiency, offers them nine-month paid internships, and helps them find a full-time position upon graduation.
Proponents are very supportive of the proposed plan, pointing to the impact it could have on climate goals and environmental justice. Nevertheless, they want to closely monitor the implementation.
“The Equity Working Group will not fizzle out and die after this work,” said Wambui-Ekop. “We will continue to be there and hold the program administrators accountable.”