Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons
A recent report shows that renters, lower-income residents and non-English speakers are less likely to benefit from the state’s widely praised energy conservation program.
As cold weather approaches and COVID-19 continues to hit harder in disadvantaged neighborhoods, advocates in Massachusetts are pushing the state and its utilities to do more to ensure everyone has equal access to the energy efficiency services that could help them stay warmer and healthier throughout the winter.
This latest surge of activism has been driven, at least in part, by a recent report by the major utility companies that concludes residents use energy efficiency services at significantly lower rates in communities with lower median incomes, more renters, or higher populations of non-English speakers.
“There are real barriers that need to be addressed here,” said Cindy Luppi, New England director for environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action. “There is a big disconnect here that needs to be a priority for the program.”
Massachusetts’ energy efficiency programs are generally considered among the best in the country. The state has been named the most energy efficient by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for nine years running.
Every three years, the state approves a new energy efficiency plan. The programs specified in the plan are administered by Mass Save, a partnership between the state’s major gas and electric utilities. The services offered include free home energy audits, discounts and rebates on energy-efficient appliances and heating systems, and discounted or no-cost weatherization services. Low-income households are often eligible for even further discounted or free services.
These provisions make Massachusetts a national leader in equity in energy efficiency, said Sue Coakley, executive director of Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships.
“The three-year plan includes, really, a very advanced model that I point to for other states to follow,” she said.
However, the benefits of these programs still go disproportionately to wealthier, whiter towns and to residents who own their homes, according to the utilities’ report and the observations of those who work in the field.
In the town of Acton, for example, where median household income tops $120,000 and just 3% of households have limited English proficiency, some 46% of homes have participated in energy efficiency services, according to the utilities’ report. On the other hand, the city of Fall River, where 65% of homes are renter-occupied and the median income is about half the statewide average, just 13% of residents have taken advantage of these services.
“The study confirmed what folks have been saying all along,” said Mary Wambui, an energy efficiency equity activist and a member of the state’s energy efficiency advisory council. “There is no hiding from it — it is no longer anecdotal, it’s a fact.”
The reasons for this gap are complex. Residents of underserved areas might be less likely to know energy efficiency services are available because of language barriers, lack of outreach from program administrators, or cultural differences. Low-income households may also be focused more on urgent day-to-day needs than on seemingly abstract concepts like energy efficiency. And rental units can be harder to reach because residents rarely have the authority or incentive to make changes to the home.
Systemic racism has helped create these situations, Wambui said.
“We are not accusing anybody of being racist,” she said. “We are only saying that there are structures that perpetuate a status quo.”
Utility companies say they are fully supportive of efforts to ensure equitable participation in efficiency programs.
“We’re committed to understanding the systemic barriers that impact program participation rates of our low-income, non-English-speaking, and minority households,” said Eversource spokesperson Reid Lamberty. “Our energy efficiency programs are designed to reduce the energy burden of all customers.”
Still, the disparities are particularly alarming to activists right now. With winter coming, inefficient heat or poor weatherization could mean higher bills for residents who are already financially insecure. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has left a lot of people in these populations out of work while simultaneously keeping them in their homes more as they avoid exposure, work from home, or have children doing remote schooling.
“I am deeply worried about the coming winter and all of the unemployment and people maybe not being able to pay their energy bills,” Luppi said.
One of the thorniest challenges is dealing with rental units. Renters have no authority and little financial incentive to invest in upgraded heating or insulation, while landlords have no financial motivation to improve efficiency if they’re not paying the utility bills.
The current energy efficiency plan has addressed this dynamic by giving a 90% discount on weatherization services to landlords who own small multifamily buildings. During the pandemic, the discount has been temporarily raised to 100%.
Advocates would like to see more efforts made to target renters. In 2019, the proposed statewide energy efficiency plan included a provision to pay the utilities $20 for each renter they provided service to, an attempt to motivate more outreach to these populations. Activists, the attorney general, and even the utilities themselves supported this approach. The state Department of Public Utilities, however, stripped this incentive from the plan during its approval process.
Discussions for the next three-year energy efficiency plan, which will be in effect from 2022 to 2024, are just beginning, and advocates hope incentives like those removed can be successfully included this time around.
Working with community organizations on outreach efforts is also essential, said Amy Boyd, director of policy at climate change nonprofit the Acadia Center. These groups are often better than the utilities at understanding the needs, challenges, and cultures in their communities and can therefore communicate with them more effectively.
“The organization that has a track record of improving the community and speaks your language, both figuratively and literally, is a more trusted voice to say, ‘No really, efficiency is a good thing,’” she said.
Such outreach could be mandated in the next state efficiency plan, but Mass Save could choose to connect with community organizations before that, Boyd said.
With COVID-19 cases ticking up in Massachusetts, activists, however, say even more aggressive action is required to address these health and financial inequities.
“There will be so much happening in the same communities that have been underserved by the program, so it is worth raising our voices about the issue,” Wambui said.