By Stephen Ward
Special to the Sun Journal
This past month, I testified in support of three major bills at the Legislature: LD 886, sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, LD 1181, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and LD 1201, emergency legislation presented by Gov. John Baldacci, each of which proposes to strengthen energy efficiency programs for Maine business, industry and residents.
The Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Energy Future has dispensed with these bills and is poised to propose a composite bill that incorporates the best features from all three. While I am no longer Maine’s Public Advocate, I still take consumer protection seriously. In particular, I’d like to address the opportunity to make a comprehensive weatherization strategy work for Maine’s many low-income households.
Currently, Maine relies exclusively on federal funds for low-income weatherization. Historically, we have weatherized fewer than 1,000 homes each year, out of roughly 120,000 low-income homes that are eligible for heating fuel assistance. Today, there is a 10-year waiting list for homes already identified as needing weatherization. These are homes that every winter inefficiently uses both the homeowner’s own money and public LIHEAP assistance.
Given the current pace of weatherization with federal funds, it will take a century to help all the low-income households reduce their heating expenses significantly. We do not have a century to do this. In fact, we may have only a few years before prices rise again and Maine’s household budgets are stretched to the breaking point. If something is to be done now, what will be the costs and benefits of a “Weatherize Maine” strategy?
One legislative proposal would generate funding to weatherize at least half of Maine’s poorly-insulated housing stock by 2020, for Mainers at all income levels, as well as thousands of commercial buildings. This would include all of the 60,000 homes receiving fuel assistance. For oil-heated households, the expected 30 percent reduction in usage from weatherization will amount to an average $550 savings in the annual oil bill, when prices are $2 per gallon — if prices stay at the level they reached in 2008, the average annual savings would be nearly $1,300.
The programs proposed in Augusta seek to ensure that homes needing weatherization first get an energy audit and then necessary insulation, air sealing and heating system improvements. Eligible low-income households would receive this at no cost. Other households would receive technical assistance from certified professionals, as well as financial assistance, and be expected to pay 75 percent of the cost themselves.
Program funds could come from the same source most other states use to fund efficiency programs for electricity and natural gas — a “System Benefit Charge” that is paid per-barrel of fuel entering the state. This is a dedicated surcharge solely used to support efficiency programs that directly benefit consumers.
One legislative proposal would increase the retail cost of heating oil by a few cents per gallon over the next 10 years, costing the average heating oil customer less than $2 per month. This is about a one percent cost increase — natural gas consumers already pay 3 percent and receive the benefits of efficiency programs designed for them.
One point is inescapable: under the proposed legislation, customers at all income levels have to share in the cost, from $20 to $40 annually and depending on consumption. That is why the bills propose to provide a full rebate of that amount to each low-income household until their home is weatherized.
When you consider the benefits and the costs, something like this initiative is clearly needed at this time. There is one important word of caution, however: we need to commit enough funding so that the multi-year benefits of Maine’s efficiency strategy are fully realized.
The worst outcome would occur if Maine relied on short-term federal stimulus funding in order to launch weatherization programs and energy workforce development only to see these efforts evaporate when the stimulus expires.
To succeed at this will take patience and commitment. But it is long past time for Maine to continue tolerating a 10-year wait for weatherizing the homes of low-income families who are eligible, but for whom there is no available funding.
Maine can — and should — do better.
Stephen Ward of Newcastle served as Maine’s Public Advocate from 1997 to 2007.

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