The Clean Water Blog

"Let us breathe" environmental justice protest in Massachusetts

Energy Efficiency Can Trump Climate Policy Failures

Battles over renewable energy policy in Massachusetts have occupied center stage for climate advocates in recent months, with joint letters, media op-eds, petitions, and rallies drawing large interest from those concerned about worsening climate impacts. A central target has been pending legislation to increase the pace for adopting clean energy alternatives, and environmental organizations like Clean Water Action have allied with community and labor groups to push for equitable access to solar power as well.

But while this debate is critical to changing the direction of a fossil-fuel dependent economy, a more immediate solution has received comparatively little attention: energy efficiency is still, by far, the cheapest way to mitigate our climate footprint, lower energy costs, and create ”green-collar” jobs that help bolster the transition away from a polluting past.

Efficiency is often described as doing the same amount of work with less energy. Every three years, Massachusetts sets in place a Three-Year Energy Efficiency Investment Plan to guide the direction of the state’s multi-billion dollar program, which is run by utility companies on behalf of their ratepayers. This has been the top-ranked program in the country for several years running, but Clean Water Action and our partners in the Green Justice Coalition (GJC) have identified some critical flaws, chief among them that the utility companies (called Program Administrators or ‘PAs’ in geek-speak) get to both draft the Three-Year Plan and administer the entire marketing/customer acquisition/contractor infrastructure after the Plan is approved by the state Department of Public Utilities. A stakeholder body called the Energy Efficiency Advisory Council (EEAC) provides some oversight and planning guidance, but in practice the deck is stacked in favor of the utilities. (In the photo above, Clean Water Action staff and interns joined GJC allies in protesting at a recent EEAC meeting.)

This has led to a situation where the PAs are lauded for running a first-class energy efficiency program, but since they measure success only in terms of aggregate climate emissions reductions, they are paid regardless of whether they serve all ratepayers fairly. This means that as long as they hit the overall statewide greenhouse gas reduction target they set for themselves, they get paid a huge sum to run the programs (in the last Plan, this amount was on the order of $118 million. Meanwhile they frequently fail to hit targets for the separate customer classes (residential, low-income and commercial/industrial).

To add insult to injury, they have never fairly served renters or moderate-income homeowners, who usually pay their utility bills directly (including the efficiency surcharges). Non-English speakers also face significant barriers to participation since the process is quite complex and the program's language support has been roundly criticized. In fact, the PAs have not even created the criteria to measure progress in serving these folks. In short, these customers effectively end up subsidizing wealthier customer classes to get work done in their typically newer and already more efficient homes. This has been the primary focus of GJC's interventions with the EEAC and the PAs over the last nearly 10 years, since the current energy efficiency program was put in place.

Despite identifying these barriers years ago and advocating for changes to address them- such as reporting program data by zip code to identify the areas with concentrations of underserved populations, or partnering with local groups to provide jobs to members with language skills who could help shepherd non-English speaking customers through the bureaucratic maze- the PAs have clung to a rigid model that has not succeeded so far in delivering the program's benefits to significant categories of customers. GJC even worked with the Conservation Law Foundation and the Applied Economics Clinic to deliver to the EEAC a report using limited available program data that showed major disparities in communities being served.

Which brings us to the present, with the process for creating a 3-Year Plan for 2019-21 underway. Clean Water Action along with our GJC partners and other allies are knee-deep in the energy efficiency weeds, pressing for immediate and effective action to serve these long-suffering customers. Among other solutions, we are pressing for the PAs' giant compensation package for running the program, euphemistically called "performance incentives", to be tied finally to their actual performance with these underserved ratepayers, providing an actual incentive to serve them.

We understand that successful climate action requires measures for climate justice, and as unappetizing or unlikely a campaign area it may seem, energy efficiency policy is one of the areas where we can have an immediate impact to reduce economic and environmental burdens on our most vulnerable and disenfranchised neighbors.