The statewide average price for heating oil is the lowest it’s been in more than 10 years, which should save Maine residents and businesses more than $300 million from just two years ago.
That’s great news for this winter, but history shows us that the savings are only temporary.
When oil prices rise yet again – as they always do – Mainers will return to spending an outsized portion of their paychecks on staying warm, unless more is done to prepare their homes for cold weather.
To make this time of low costs count, then, residents should take the long view.
The savings should be used to weatherize homes and replace old heating systems, projects that pay out year after year for the life of a home, and help cut down on the use of fossil fuels as well.
Thousands of Maine homes already have been upgraded with help from Efficiency Maine, which offers rebates and financing. The results speak for themselves.
Efficiency Maine’s Home Energy Savings Program reached 6,400 homes last year, setting up a total estimated lifetime savings on heating costs of $47 million.
That success should be replicated throughout Maine, as every $1 spent through Efficiency Maine leads to about $10 to $20 in savings.
But with so many old, drafty homes, the task is monumental.
The agency estimates that 350,000 to 450,000 Maine homes could cost-effectively benefit from weatherization.
However, to weatherize all those homes by 2030 – the state’s stated goal – about 25,000 homes per year need to be addressed. At present, however, far fewer are tightened up each year.
A bill introduced last legislative session, L.D. 1341, would have authorized a bond to help increase that amount.
All told, that would have eventually cut the amount of heating oil burned annually in Maine by 100 million gallons, about a fifth of what is used each year.
The bill was held over to the session that starts in January, and lawmakers should not let the low cost of heating oil keep them from taking action.
The same can be said of the federal heating assistance programs.
The state’s allowance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which purchases heating fuel for eligible residents, unfortunately has been cut in recent years, from $56 million in 2011 to $30 million last year.
But this year, that money will go a long way, and the federal government should use this winter, one that looks like it will be without a heating crisis, to invest in its Weatherization Assistance Program.
About 50,000 Mainers are eligible for LIHEAP, and thankful for it. But that money is gone as soon as the fuel is burned up the chimney.
Weatherization, however, pays out winter after winter – a good reason to boost the number of Maine homes that are reached by the program each year.
The savings from this winter should be used as much as possible to make up for that imbalance, and ensure that this temporary dip in home heating oil prices pays off for the long term.