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Cuts to energy efficiency programs are already affecting N.H. homes. Can funding be restored?

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Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Jennifer Chisholm stands with P&M Insulation owners Jason Palmer and Dax McAfee outside of her Nashua home

With a big fish tank, a dog, and two active kids, Jennifer Chisholm’s home in Nashua is a cozy place in the winter. But it’s expensive to keep warm, and it doesn’t heat evenly.

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Now, an energy efficiency program through NH Saves is helping Chisholm weatherize her house – and keep her bills down.

But a recent decision from the Public Utilities Commission reduced the budgets for programs that homeowners like Chisholm can use to implement those energy efficiency measures, causing confusion and frustration for contractors and program administrators.

Many are hoping that new legislation, which passed in the New Hampshire Senate on Thursday, will return the programs to their previous funding levels. But one aspect of the income-qualified Home Energy Assistance program that helped Chisholm weatherize her home – the cap on funding that can go into one project – remains unclear.

And those who implement energy efficiency programs say the PUC’s order has already had an effect on energy efficiency businesses and projects.

‘A house with holes:’ How one homeowner used the program 

Chisholm bought her home about five years ago and she’s done a lot of work. But some things have been hard to repair well. A few years ago, glass plates started dropping from one of the doors between her porch and the house. She put a blanket over the broken door hasn’t been able to fix it.

“It's just kind of like, a house with holes, I guess you could say,” she said.

A couple of winters ago, Chisholm started tracking her propane bills. She said they reached up to $500 dollars a month. A fuel assistance program through Southern New Hampshire Services has helped, and through that program, she heard about weatherization programs that could help homeowners pay for energy efficiency services that can help lower heating costs.

This winter, with cold weather approaching, she called to connect with the program. There was a waitlist, but she laid out her concerns. Soon after she called, an auditor came to assess what energy efficiency measures could help lower Chisholm’s heating bills and make her home more comfortable.

In early January, a team from P&M Insulation installed weatherization measures for Chisholm. The team insulated Chisholm’s floor, using a hose to spray bubblegum pink fiberglass insulation into the cavity under her house.

Jason Palmer, a co-owner of P&M Insulation, says lots of the New Hampshire homes he works in only have an inch or two of insulation. And energy efficiency projects can save people a lot of money on their bills. For a house like Chisholm’s, that could mean 40% to 60% savings, Palmer said.

And energy efficiency work also helps to lower the amount of fossil fuel people need to use. With mass adoption efforts, energy efficiency can help mitigate climate change.

“At the end of the day, whatever fuel goes into one of these furnaces or boilers, they all emit CO2, which goes out to the environment,” Palmer said. “It makes global warming that much more challenging because of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

How New Hampshire funds energy efficiency – and how the PUC changed things

New Hampshire’s Home Energy Assistance program is paying for part of the work on Chisholm’s home. The program helps pay for energy efficiency measures like more efficient heating appliances, insulation, and weather stripping. It’s also helping Chisholm replace her broken door.

The HEA program is one of the energy efficiency programs through NH Saves that is funded by the system benefits charge – a charge on electricity bills that usually comes out to a few dollars per month, for the average resident.

A November order from the Public Utilities Commission decreased the amount utilities could charge for energy efficiency programs and encouraged a shift away from ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs altogether. The order has been challenged by multiple stakeholders, including the state’s consumer advocate, utility companies, advocacy groups, and the Department of Energy.

Palmer says his work through the HEA program changed dramatically after the order from the Public Utilities Commission. Chisholm’s home got the same amount of work it would have otherwise, but Palmer said the order “drastically” reduced the work his team can complete for some jobs.

“We're used to being on a job an average of two or three days,” he said. ”We're doing half a day's worth of work.”

Other energy efficiency contractors have said the order is impacting their businesses, too. And it’s also caused problems for people who want to weatherize their homes.

At first, lots of projects were paused. Chisholm's energy efficiency work was delayed because of the order. Now things are back up and running, but with smaller budgets and less availability of funds for complete weatherization in individual homes, said Ryan Clouthier, the deputy director at Southern New Hampshire Services, which helps connect homeowners and renters with weatherization programs.

In addition to reducing budgets, the PUC’s order also reduced the recently increased cap on funding that could go into a single project. That cap went from $20,000 to $8,000.

Clouthier says the lower cap forces people to make choices between which energy efficiency measures to install – like whether to insulate the floor or an attic or put weather stripping on doors. He compared the situation to choosing which warm clothing to wear outside on a freezing cold day.

“Now with the funding the way it is, I'd have to look at, OK, what's the most important thing to do here to save energy?” he said. “So I might only be able to wear a winter jacket and pants, and no boots.”

There’s a big demand for the energy efficiency equivalent of boots. Clouthier says there are about 30,000 Granite Staters who receive fuel assistance, who are all eligible for weatherization help. And people see more savings when they get the full package of energy efficiency measures that would help their home.

The legislation – and legislators – who could rectify funding cuts.

House Bill 549, if enacted, would restore the budgets for energy efficiency programs to 2020 levels, and return energy efficiency work back to normal. But there’s nothing in that bill that specifically addresses the cap on funding for individual weatherization projects.

Rep. Michael Vose, a Republican from Epping, who introduced the original version of the legislation in 2020, says the omission was intentional.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years, that decision has been left up to the implementers of the state’s energy efficiency programs, namely the utilities and the parties that they work with,” he said, saying that it’s worked well in the past for those parties to have control over the cap.

The legislative intent of H.B. 549, Vose said, is to return energy efficiency programs back to their previous structures. And if the PUC wanted to intercede in the process of setting the cap for income-qualified energy efficiency programs, that could possibly require further legislation, Vose said.

Sen. David Watters, a Democrat from Dover, who helped author an amendment to the bill, said the bill clarifies that income-qualified energy efficiency programs are a high priority for the legislature, ensuring at least 20% of energy efficiency funds go to income-qualified programs.

And the bill’s language could provide legal protection for the higher cap — consumer advocate Don Kreis said he interprets the bill to authorize a higher cap on energy efficiency projects. He’s a proponent of the higher $20,000 cap.

“We know that that is frequently what it takes to actually do this right,” he said.

But ultimately, if the bill becomes law, the cap on funding for individual projects through the HEA program will come down to what the utilities propose to the PUC next month.

Eversource, the state’s largest electric utility, said if the bill passes, they will consider what cap to propose in their new filings with the legislative intent in mind, though the PUC specified in their order that they favor a lower cap.

And Ryan Clouthier says a lower cap has a big impact on Granite Staters accessing energy efficiency through the income-qualified programs.

“Obviously, with a lower cap, I don't think the number of jobs are going to drop,” he said. “But what is going to drop is the benefit to the clients and the savings that those clients can receive.”

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