By Ralph Chapman, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to aid “fellow Mainers who are most in need” with home heating assistance deserves further consideration, as it is a worthy goal. Most of the attention to his plan has focused on problems with his proposed source of funding (increased timber harvesting on public lands) and his political method (not releasing Land for Maine’s Future bonds).
The cost of staying alive through Maine’s winter is most stressful for those whose incomes do not allow simultaneous purchase of food, medicine and heating fuel even though all three are necessary. Funding to Maine, through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, is going down even as economic conditions have increased its need.
In this context, the governor has proposed to put additional dollars ($1 million-$3 million per year) into the Efficiency Maine Trust for the purpose of helping people afford winter heating costs. The actual wording of his proposed (and rejected) legislation ( LD 1397) during the last legislative session would have used the funds for measures consistent with Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Trust Fund expenditures, only 35 percent of which are dedicated to residential energy cost savings (the other 65 percent is dedicated to business and industry energy-saving efforts). Informally, we understand that the governor intended these funds to be used toward the purchase of wood pellet stoves.
It is time to call a truce to the Land for Maine’s Future funds hostage situation and come together to solve the low-income home heating problem, with the most cost-effective (and most environmentally sound) method that will also help our local economies by slowing the hemorrhage of our $5 billion dollar annual fossil fuel payments out of the state’s economy.
Home weatherization (insulation and air sealing techniques) has been shown (over more than 30 years in Maine) to reduce annual home heating fuel use by more than 20 percent in homes of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program recipients, thereby reducing energy costs by that amount right away and every year for decades to come. Even greater savings are possible in most middle- and upper-income homes. By far, weatherization provides the greatest return on investment of any home heating improvement, with rates of return on investment in the 20 percent per year range.
Maine Housing continues to oversee the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the low-income weatherization efforts while Efficiency Maine has provided a variety of energy-related assistance to mostly businesses and industry and some middle and upper income residences. Recent federal Weatherization Assistance Program funding (part of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) has been in the range of $2 million annually in Maine.
Both former Gov. John Baldacci and LePage have energy policies that call for weatherization of all residences and half of all businesses by 2030. Reaching this goal will require at least a ten-fold increase in the rate of accomplishment but could be achieved using several tens of millions of dollars in a revolving fund. Neither administration has shown seriousness about implementing these goals, as evidenced by the size of the funding mechanisms proposed.
Public borrowing for reducing energy costs of low-income residents, at interest rates of a few percent, when invested in weatherization, yield huge dividends by double-digit rates of return. A bond proposal ( LD 1341) carried over for consideration in the next session of the Legislature could be used for this purpose.
It is not necessary to liquidate our public forests, nor to halt our land conservation programs to realize the financial rewards of investment in reducing our home energy costs. Let us support the governor’s worthy goal of helping our neediest neighbors by improving home heating efficiencies, first through cost-effective, publicly funded weatherization.
Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, serves on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and is the director of the Weatherization Training Center in Bangor.