As winter approaches, energy costs remain a significant burden for many Mainers even with heating oil prices at moderate levels. The average cost of heating a 1,500-square-foot home today approaches $2,000 but could easily reach $3,000 if oil prices return once more to the $3 range.

As a result, energy affordability is a problem for a wide array of Mainers, from retirees living on fixed incomes to single parents struggling to make ends meet – and even to families where the parents work multiple jobs to put food on the table and pay medical expenses. Representing, as we do, the interests of low-income people in Maine, we are particularly concerned with the impact of heating bills on the one household out of five that depends on town, state or federal energy assistance to make it through the winter.

A big reason for unmet energy needs is our old, inefficient housing stock, the eighth-oldest housing in the nation. Of course, this also is an opportunity because home efficiency improvements can make a big difference in lowering costs as well as both improving comfort and health.

Maine has made steady progress with a trickle of federal money to weatherize homes and upgrade heating systems for those poor enough to receive fuel assistance, but this progress has been too slow.

In recent years, Efficiency Maine has begun to increase its focus on lowering heating bills for low-income homes. Last year, Efficiency Maine spent $547,000 to upgrade heating systems or install high-efficiency heat pumps in 167 homes of families eligible for federal LIHEAP aid and to replace defective and dangerous furnaces.

It also spent $2.1 million to weatherize and air-seal 710 apartments in low-income housing developments. These investments provide permanent reductions in household energy budgets and in the costs that local and state government otherwise have to pick up.

There is good news this year. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has approved Maine’s use of 25 percent of its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grant to weatherize the homes of income-eligible Mainers – an increase of $3.8 million from the 15 percent allocation that previously was available. This is a great and timely development.

Now Efficiency Maine is working on a new three-year plan. It’s a good one, and it will help further accelerate programs to weatherize homes both for low-income homeowners and for all Maine people.

This effort complements long-standing programs to help consumers lower their power bills with efficient lighting and appliances. Whether it is a high-efficiency heat pump or some much-needed attic insulation, Efficiency Maine uses both market-based approaches and more direct approaches for low-income consumers.

Gov. LePage has said he cares deeply about increasing resources for home heating efficiency, including for low-income households. Efficiency Maine’s draft plan would roughly double the resources for home heating efficiency initiatives for residential customers generally, in part with existing revenues from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

We urge Efficiency Maine to finalize a three-year plan that maximizes savings and builds on past success in lowering heating bills with cost-effective improvements both large or small. Efficiency Maine can be a critical resource for reducing heating bills for low-income households in Maine.

Efficiency Maine’s plan must be approved by two-thirds of its board of directors. Two seats on the board currently are vacant, and over time more members will be ready to step down from this demanding responsibility. Two more seats are filled by government agency officials: the executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority and the head of the Governor’s Energy Office. It is important for the board to act soon to make sure Efficiency Maine’s mission is not stalled this winter by politics or board turnover.

We urge the board of Efficiency Maine – and then the Maine Public Utilities Commission – to approve the plan and to do so soon to avoid the disruptions in programs caused when politics get in the way of doing what is right for Maine people. It too often is the case that when politicians dicker in Augusta, the contractors who are ready to do the actual insulating and upgrading of old furnaces turn to other projects and choose not to wait for the political dust to settle.

On behalf of the many people who work in Maine’s energy-efficiency industry – as well the many low-income households who have to turn to government assistance to stay warm this winter – we urge prompt and favorable action on Efficiency Maine’s three-year plan.

 


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