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After Costly Winter, Energy Bill May Bring Relief

By KAT FRIEDRICH/ecoRI News contributor

Homeowners and small-business owners who rely on heating oil or propane may breathe a sigh of relief if Massachusetts passes House bill 879 this year. The bill proposes to add a 2.5-cent-per-gallon surcharge to wholesale purchases of these fuels. This surcharge would fund new energy-efficiency programs for homes and small businesses. Environment Northeast and the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association have estimated that the bill would save consumers about $135 million.

The winter of 2013-14 squeezed the wallets of homeowners. The Boston Globe covered some of the struggles of low-income homeowners trying to keep their furnaces on during the winter. Additional heating assistance has been earmarked for those most in need, but many customers felt the financial pinch.

Homeowners and small-business owners relying on natural gas or electricity for winter warmth have access to energy-efficiency incentives in Massachusetts, but those who have oil-heated furnaces do not.

The bill, first introduced by Rep. Frank Smizik, D-Brookline, in 2011 and now reintroduced in a second session, would create energy-efficiency programs for heating oil and propane. The money could be used for a variety of retrofit projects, such as replacing furnaces, water-heating systems, insulation and/or storm windows.

The bill uses preexisting energy-efficiency programs as a model, according to Liam Holland, research director for the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. Like other Massachusetts energy-efficiency programs, these programs would allocate 20 percent of their resources for low-income households.

The majority of the feedback on the bill has been positive, Holland said. Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP), Environmental Entrepreneurs and other organizations have made statements in support of the bill. According to NEEP, about a third of Massachusetts homes rely on heating oil.

During the first session when the bill was introduced, the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association (formerly the Massachusetts Oilheat Council) said investments in oil heat and propane efficiency in Massachusetts could lead to growth in local jobs, and the projected savings would be considerable — $6.80 for every dollar invested in saving oil and $9.90 for every dollar invested in saving propane.

Since the first session, Holland said, small-scale fuel vendors have become more supportive of the bill. “This session, the oil-heat dealers were still not opposed to it, but we heard some negative feedback from their members about oil prices," he said.

The bill was reported on favorably by a House committee earlier this month, Holland said. If the bill passes through both the Senate and the House successfully and is signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, it will become law.

The bill only has a few months to pass this session, though. During each legislative session, the House and Senate consider many bills, prioritizing some of them and putting others on hold. This bill has been given a relatively high priority.

"The committee was interested in moving the bill forward because of the lack of support for oil-heat customers," Holland said.

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