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Maine nursing homes have until the end of January to take the state up on an offer to help them upgrade to more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.
Efficiency Maine, the state’s energy efficiency program administrator, launched a program specifically for long-term care facilities in October, offering larger rebates toward the purchase and installation of approved heating and cooling, lighting and kitchen equipment.
The timing was meant to coincide with ventilation improvements in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. However, variant surges since then have again left facility administrators spread thin and raised questions about the logistics and capacity for taking on large capital projects amid the ongoing crisis. Facilities have until Jan. 31 to apply for incentives and until July 1 to complete their projects.
“These are facilities that are really important to the well-being of the entire citizenship in Maine,” said Rick Meinking, a senior program manager at Efficiency Maine, noting the state has an aging population. “We’re really excited to offer the HVAC and heating and cooling solutions for these folks because this is a big deal.”
During the height of the pandemic, he said, building contractors weren’t able to work in facilities except for emergency repairs. Air ventilation has become a priority during the pandemic, and as facilities consider upgrading their systems, Meinking wanted to encourage them to do so with high-efficiency technology.
“We really put this together to try to establish the relationships again and provide enough motivation so that there’s a call to action and a reason to move forward and do something,” he said.
Maine has just under 90 nursing homes and hundreds of assisted living facilities, which the state defines broadly, according to the Maine Health Care Association.
“We have an aging stock of facilities in Maine,” said Nadine Grosso, the association’s vice president and director of communications, regarding the state’s nursing homes. Many are more than 30 years old, she said. “We look at programs like what Efficiency Maine is offering, [and] we certainly encourage and support renovating these homes.”
Through the new program, Efficiency Maine is offering incentives including $675 or more toward individual high-performance heat pumps and $6 per square foot covered by a variable refrigerant flow system. The organization’s commercial and industrial incentives, which normally would include long-term care facilities, start at $500 toward heat pumps and $4 per square foot covered by a variable refrigerant flow system.
According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. nursing homes and other assisted living facilities used 120,900 British thermal units of fuel per square foot in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s about twice the average commercial building but around half of what a typical hospital consumes.
As is the case with other special incentive programs, officials at Efficiency Maine expect the bulk of applications to come toward the end of the application window.
“If we could see $2-3 million worth of activity in this program, we would be ecstatic,” Meinking said. Even a dozen or so applications would “help hundreds of Maine’s seniors enjoy a comfortable living environment [and] help the facilities’ bottom line,” he said.
Grosso noted that Maine’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities rely on Medicaid for about 70% of their annual revenue, and that line of funding doesn’t go very far when trying to make facility improvements, she said.
Meinking, who spent a decade as a facility manager at a downstate long-term care facility before coming to Efficiency Maine, said he understands the financial constraints these facilities face. “Getting in there and trying to reduce their energy costs is a number one factor in trying to help these facilities,” he said.
He originally wanted to launch this program in 2020, but the pandemic was in full swing. His team thought it would be more successful if they waited until facilities were open again to visitors, including contractors.
But the program launched before the late-fall coronavirus surge and the new Omicron variant made clear the pandemic is not over. Nursing homes have been among the hardest-hit facilities during the pandemic; whether they will have the capacity to think about upgrades is still unclear.
Omicron could affect the number of applications received, Meinking acknowledged, but he added that Efficiency Maine could run the program again in the future.
Despite supporting energy-efficient facility upgrades in general, “while we are still in the midst of this pandemic, right now we are focused on keeping our residents safe from COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association wrote in an email. “This means our immediate focus is on investments that will help improve care delivery, such as clinical reform, infrastructure updates and workforce improvements.”
Grosso, at the Maine Health Care Association, said upgrades can be feasible even during the pandemic. “The key will be balancing,” she said — taking into account the level of viral spread in the community and ensuring contact is limited between contractors and residents will be important. The window to complete projects is also sufficiently long that the surge of the virus could calm and facilities may still have time to make improvements before the July deadline.
“I think it could work out really well,” said Grosso, who noted upgrades in long-term care facilities could improve residents’ quality of life while reducing energy costs and facilities’ environmental impact. “But it does remain to be seen how much we can focus on this when we’re still in the pandemic very seriously in Maine.”