October 4, 2013

State offers energy rebates to homeowners

Mainers can choose from an array of rebates, but the supply is limited and some of the bigger ones are already gone.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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In this 2008 file photo, a customer at Black Magic Chimney and Fireplace in Cambidge, Mass. holds a handful of wood pellets for a stove. Efficiency Maine has launched a new rebate program to help homeowners reduce their winter heating costs, but most residents won’t be able to take advantage of some of the biggest benefits – at least for now.

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Home Energy Savings Program incentives

Vendors learned of the program rules on Sept. 11, Stoddard said, and had made reservations for the 50 homes within a week. Most of the jobs are for pellet boilers.

For wood and pellet stoves, Efficiency Maine is offering $250 rebates. The stoves must meet federal specifications and be installed with make-up air ducted from outside. The wood stoves must have at least enough efficiency to be on Oregon’s list of premium stoves. Maine didn’t want to start a stove certification program because Oregon already has an established one. But as of now, only 11 stoves are listed. Stoddard said the list is expected to grow to 200 this winter.

“People are going to have to be a little patient,” he said. “Not everything is going to get done between now and the first of the year.”

WHICH SYSTEMS GET THE REBATES?

Don McClure is being patient. He works in the stove department at Damariscotta Hardware and sells two popular wood stove brands, Harman and Regency. Neither is on Oregon’s list now.

Stove dealers are promoting their products with help from a $300 federal tax credit that’s due to expire at the end of this year. Adding the $250 rebate would be helpful, McClure said, but it’s not a deal breaker. Still, he’s eager to promote the Efficiency Maine rebate when the details are worked out.

The highest rebate for a supplemental heating system is $500, for an air-source ductless heat pump. The high-efficiency electric units provide both heat and air conditioning. They sometimes are called “mini-splits” because of their two-piece, through-the-wall configuration.

At the public forums, a mini-split distributor said sales had “exploded,” and predicted that installations will double each year in Maine for the next decade. More than 3,000 were sold last year.

That market response led vendors of some other heat sources to question why the state should provide any incentives.

“Why are they subsidizing those? They sell themselves,” said Bill Bell, executive director of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association.

Bell’s group would have liked to see more money set aside for what he calls the “pent-up demand” for pellet boilers. Pellet heat from locally harvested wood has the added benefit of keeping money in Maine that otherwise would leave the country to pay for oil, he said.

At the same time, Bell said he recognizes that Efficiency Maine didn’t want large sums of money going to one sector.

Stoddard, with Efficiency Maine, replied that despite the growing popularity of mini-splits, the experience with an incentive program last year run by Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. suggests that taking $500 off the $3,000 or so cost of a basic unit can bring an affordable heating alternative within reach of many Mainers.

“That seemed to be what it took to make people move,” he said.

REBATE LEVELS MAY BE ADJUSTED

Omitted from the program is a chief competitor of the mini-split: thermal storage heaters. The units, sold through vendors such as Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, use cheaper electricity at night to store heat in ceramic bricks. They are eligible for a rebate program through Central Maine Power Co., ranging from $1,500 for space heaters to $4,500 for a whole-house heating system.

Efficiency Maine also has various incentives for insulating and air-sealing a home. They range from $400 to $1,500.

Bob Howe, executive director of the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals, said his members wanted homes to at least meet minimum thermal standards before they could qualify for heating rebates.

“We shouldn’t be giving incentives for heat pumps, for example, in old, leaky houses,” he said.

Howe also said it’s important for cracks and gaps to be sealed in a home before it’s insulated, especially with fiberglass or cellulose. Otherwise, the insulation won’t be very effective. “It’s going to be up to the contractors to point this out to people,” he said.

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