The program, Mass Save, is run by utility companies with oversight by the state, and hands out between $640 million and $700 million a year in rebates that are funded by a surcharge on utility customers’ bills. It is credited with successfully reducing carbon emissions from home heating across Massachusetts since its inception in 2008. But in the past, those cuts have come largely by encouraging conversions from oil to gas, a less-dirty fossil fuel that the state plans to phase out.
However, in a set of proposed new incentives that would take effect next year, Mass Save is again planning substantial incentives to install gas systems and, in some instances, oil. And at a time when record-breaking heatwaves are scorching the country and the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is at an all-time high, experts said incentives must now move sharply in the other direction.
“This draft plan for energy efficiency still exists in the old mind-set, the old world, where we don’t actually have to do anything on climate very urgently, or where there isn’t a role in energy efficiency in helping us get to our goals,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a senior attorney and vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts. “And that isn’t the case.”
Ultimately, the state wants the vast majority of homes and businesses to be outfitted with electric heat pumps that plug into a power grid fueled by wind and other renewable sources. While Mass Save’s proposed new incentives include robust rebates for heat pumps, the program is planning to direct those rebates primarily toward homes currently using oil or propane, not the 52 percent of residences statewide that now use natural gas.
Heat pumps are highly efficient, and provide cooling in addition to heating, but they come with hefty up-front costs. And with the low cost of natural gas and high costs of electricity in Massachusetts, a switch from gas to electric heat pumps could cause those customers to see their energy bills increase. For that reason, some experts say, Massachusetts needs to rethink its incentive program.
“Now is the time to be aggressive in our shifting, and we need to make it as easy as possible for the average person to step up their game and get to the maximum level of efficiency,” said the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, chief of environment, energy and open spaces for the city of Boston.
Compounding the problem, critics say, is the fact that homeowners who decide to replace their boilers probably won’t want to do it again for a decade or longer. That means conversions to natural gas or the replacement of existing natural gas equipment in the next several years will ensure sustained usage of fossil fuel at least up to the state’s 2030 deadline for halving carbon emissions and likely longer.
“Under this draft Plan, Mass Save will continue pouring ratepayer money into new fossil fuel systems long past when they are needed, at the brink of too late,” wrote…
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