The state of Maine will shift $3.8 million in low-income heating assistance this winter from buying fuel to weatherizing homes and improving their heating systems.
The move reflects priorities of the Le- Page administration to spend more money on long-term energy upgrades and less on buying fuel for inefficient homes. It also comes at a time when oil prices have declined significantly, reducing the need for help in buying fuel.
The money is contained in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Last week, Maine’s congressional delegation announced that roughly $35 million had been released, which likely represents 90 percent of what will be available this heating season.
LIHEAP, as it’s called, is the main federal program that helps low-income households and seniors with their energy bills. In Maine, the focus is to help offset winter heating costs. This is the first time Maine has obtained a waiver to put more money into weatherization.
The extra funds are expected to insulate and air-seal 350 additional homes and improve heating systems at 588 homes, for a total of 2,225 households. That will make only a small dent in the number of low-income homes needing weatherization. But the increase comes at a time when low oil prices are giving Mainers some relief from high energy bills, and officials say any chance to boost efficiency and buffer future price spikes is welcome.
Last year, 46,624 households qualified for $39 million in assistance. The average fuel benefit was $702, which is sent directly to energy dealers to serve their customers.
The stepped-up money for weatherization and heating systems is available thanks to a dip last year in applications for LIHEAP, which left the state with a surplus that otherwise would have been returned to the federal government. That created an opportunity for the Maine State Housing Authority to ask permission to increase the percentage of funding earmarked for weatherization this fiscal year from 15 percent to 25 percent, the maximum allowed. A hearing was held last May, and there was no public opposition.
“It was fortunate that this year everything fell into place, so we still met the program rules and we were able to do more weatherization,” said Deborah Turcotte, a housing authority spokeswoman.
The decision to pursue the waiver was encouraged by Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director. In his view, the LIHEAP program should direct a greater share of money each year to better insulation and heating systems.
“We have to get through a Maine winter,” Woodcock said. “But we should be investing more to lower these costs for future winters.”
Weatherization is a good investment. Program rules require any improvements to meet strict payback guidelines. Work done last year, for instance, is expected to save five times as much money as was spent on labor and materials, according to a housing authority report. Specifically, jobs completed in 2014 were projected to save residents 153,625 gallons of oil. Overall, the insulating and air-sealing measures done at a typical home can cut fuel consumption by 25 to 30 percent.
But doing the work takes time and costs money. The average weatherization cost last year was $7,777; the average heating system upgrade was $1,680.
Another obstacle is labor.
Weatherization is performed through the state’s 10 community action agencies, which provide services for low-income Mainers. In Presque Isle, the Aroostook County Action Program has a waiting list of roughly 1,200 households. Jim Baillargeon, the agency’s housing director, said the agency can weatherize a half-dozen homes a month, using two private contractors and one internal crew.
He said the agency would like to hire another crew in January but is having trouble finding trained workers.
“It’s a fraction of the need,” Baillargeon said of the work being funded. “But if you don’t make inroads, it will never be resolved.”