Energy Efficiency

28 Feb 2023

Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Programs Should Shift Focus to Emissions, Critics Say

28 Feb 2023  by   

The state has long been a leader in energy conservation, but climate advocates say the successful Mass Save program now needs a reset that will help it accelerate the transition from fossil fuels.

The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. Credit: Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism / Creative Commons

Massachusetts lawmakers and advocates are looking at ways to overhaul the state’s energy efficiency collaborative Mass Save, arguing that the longstanding, utility-run program isn’t up to tackling the present-day climate crisis.

A bill (SD 2346) filed in the state Senate calls for a wholesale reorganization of the program and the creation of a new leadership structure. At the same time, activists are pushing for an expanded mission that would focus more on accelerating the transition from fossil fuels by supporting electrification, battery storage and other clean energy investments.

“We don’t just need to reduce inefficient electricity usage — we need to ramp up other kinds of electricity usage,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts at the Conservation Law Foundation. “The Mass Save framework has just proved fundamentally unsuited to being a useful tool in the climate toolbox.”

Massachusetts has long been a national leader in energy efficiency, routinely ranking at or near the top of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s annual State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. And it is widely agreed that Mass Save has been a significant factor in this success.

Mass Save was launched in 2008 with the mission of reducing overall energy use. It is an umbrella name branding the efficiency services jointly administered by the state’s electric and natural gas utilities, including education, energy assessments, and rebates and financing for a variety of measures.

Each year, the state Energy Efficiency Advisory Council — which includes stakeholders representing businesses, consumers, labor, environmental groups, and state agencies — creates a three-year efficiency plan, which the utilities then put into action. Mass Save programs have prevented 3.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and cut electricity usage by 12.2 million megawatt-hours, according to program reports.

Not going far enough

Advocates, however, say it is vital that Mass Save’s mission focus explicitly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions if the state is to make real progress towards its climate goals. From the beginning, the program was narrowly focused on reducing total energy use — its mandate did not include any specific climate goals. Though there is an overlap between the two goals, advocates contend that the current efficiency-first approach is not yielding large enough — or fast enough — decarbonization.

Prioritizing energy savings has meant, for example, that homeowners receive rebates for replacing one natural gas heating system with a more efficient natural gas system.

“You continue to chew up fossil fuels,” said state Sen. Michael Barrett, who filed the Mass Save reform bill. “We fulfill the mission, but we fall further behind on climate.”

In recent years, legislation has attempted to tweak the mission to prompt more climate-focused action. A 2018 bill authorized Mass Save to use energy efficiency funds for programs promoting energy storage and renewable energy. A major 2021 climate roadmap law included a provision that requires the three-year energy efficiency plan to include the societal costs of carbon emissions in its cost-benefit analyses. In 2022, a new law prohibited using Mass Save incentives to pay for more fossil fuel-powered heating and cooling systems as of 2025.

Still, changes have been slow to come, advocates said.

Sloan points, for example, to a proposal by the Cape Light Compact, a regional power organization that aggregates power purchases and runs efficiency programs for a 21-town territory in southeastern Massachusetts. The program, which aimed to provide low- and moderate-income homes with solar panels, heat pumps, and battery storage, was rejected multiple times by the state Department of Public Utilities on the basis that efficiency funds should not be used to support renewable energy projects.

Though the project was finally approved in late 2022, the drawn-out process makes clear that these legislative fixes have not been enough, Sloan said.

“The tweaks have not borne fruit the way they were intended to,” she said.

As the new administration of Gov. Maura Healey takes shape, it is possible that new leadership in the Department of Public Utilities will interpret existing laws and regulations in a more aggressive or expansive fashion. Advocates, however, want to back up this possibility with further changes to Mass Save.

Some advocates support the recommendations in the December 2022 report of the state Clean Heat Commission, which suggested the creation of a building decarbonization clearinghouse: a central home for all incentives, funding sources, and technical assistance programs related to transitioning buildings to cleaner heating and cooling systems. Such a system could aggregate state, local, and nonprofit funding and financing opportunities, along with federal programs, making it easier for residents and businesses to find and maximize resources.

Barrett is reserving judgment on the idea for now, but his bill calls for a thorough analysis of all incentive and funding programs available in the state, including Mass Save, with the goal of identifying ways to improve coordination among these resources.

“We ought to take a look at bringing all these resources together in some comprehensive fashion,” Barrett said.

Leadership and funding changes needed

Any updated mission, however, must be backed up by a new, more effective leadership structure, Barrett said.

The most important step, he argued, is to update the way the program is administered. In its current form, Mass Save is run collaboratively by the utilities, but has no central board of directors or management. This arrangement gives too much power to entities that would benefit from a slow transition away from natural gas, advocates argue.

“I don’t see how we can get to our climate goals with the gas utilities running the energy efficiency program,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Barrett’s bill would essentially reorganize the program from the ground up. The proposal would create an entity dubbed the “commonwealth clean heat initiative” — though Barrett said he would expect day-to-day operations to continue under the brand name Mass Save, which has wide recognition in the state.

The initiative would be governed by a chief executive officer and a board of directors including representatives from the state energy, environment, and housing offices; the energy efficiency advisory council; the Metropolitan Area Planning Council; and the utilities. At least three board members would live in Boston, a low-income area, or a so-called Gateway City, a designation that refers to midsize cities that were once manufacturing hubs.

“We can’t have transitions off natural gas being run by the natural gas utilities,” Barrett said. “I want the utilities to still be at the table, but I don’t want them sitting at the head of the table.”

The utilities that administer Mass Save declined to comment on Barrett’s proposal at this time.

Advocates would also like to see changes to the program’s funding. Currently, Mass Save is funded through a combination of sources, including a small fee on utility bills and proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. More — and more stable — sources of funding are needed for the program to make as much impact as necessary, advocates said.

“I have a dream that we can use tax dollars to fund climate as if it’s actually a priority of the state, not just one they claim is a priority,” said Amy Boyd, vice energy of clean energy and climate policy at the nonprofit Acadia Center.

There is wide agreement that, however Mass Save is modified, real progress will require a host of additional, complementary policy changes. Chretien would like to see a legal requirement put in place requiring natural gas utilities to lower their emissions each year. It would also be important, he said, to give explicit legal authorization for entities other than utilities to install systems that provide heating and cooling to multiple buildings, such as networked geothermal, for example.

“Mass Save reform is part of the bigger conversation around fundamentally transforming our energy system to minimize the role of distribution utility gas,” Sloan said.

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