Electricity storage takes key role in energy efficiency plan

Mass Save appears to be shifting focus of the program

STATE REGULATORS on Wednesday approved utility plans to spend nearly $2.8 billion of ratepayer money over the next three years on initiatives designed to curb energy consumption in the aggregate and particularly at peak periods, resulting in energy savings of $8.5 billion.

While Mass Save will continue to offer efficient light bulbs, insulation, and other standard energy-saving devices that help curb electricity and natural gas consumption, the focus of the program is starting to shift a bit, with homeowners incentivized to swap oil and propane systems for electric heat pumps and to purchase energy storage devices.

Energy storage devices appear to be going mainstream. Under the energy efficiency program approved by the Department of Public Utilities on Wednesday, utilities would offer performance-based financial incentives to customers who purchase the devices. At peak demand periods, utilities would pay the customer to use the stored energy to reduce his/her personal power usage or to feed the electricity into the grid. The DPU decision did not detail the size of the incentives, although in testimony the utilities said they would be sizeable.

The Department of Public Utilities rejected for the time being a more aggressive plan on Cape Cod to bankroll 700 customers in their adoption of solar, electric heat pumps, and storage devices. The Cape proposal, developed by the Cape Light Compact, which aggregates customers on the Cape for the purpose of purchasing electricity, proposed that all of the 700 customers be given energy storage devices. Big financial incentives would also be available for the installation of heat pumps and solar panels; in some cases, low-income customers would be able to install solar panels at no cost.

Maggie Downey, executive director of the Cape Light Compact, said the program would target people using propane or oil to heat their home.  It would also allow homeowners to charge up their storage devices when their power needs are low and allow the local utility to remotely tap that energy when demand on the grid is peaking.

Downey said the Cape Light proposal would yield energy savings for everyone on the Cape while making the program available to just about anyone – not just those with the resources to front the cost for a $10,000 battery.

The DPU decision, which put the Cape Light proposal on hold for now, said the program would have increased the typical residential bill on the Cape by 3.3 percent and the typical commercial/industrial bill by 7.8 percent. The decision pegged the dollar cost of the program at $37 million, although Downey said that estimate was incorrect.

Over the objection of the real estate industry, the Baker administration last year issued new regulations requiring energy scorecards to be created for homes where in-house energy audits are conducted. That decision came late in the approval process for the energy efficiency programs, so no funds were allotted for it. The DPU on Wednesday allowed the utilities to move ahead with the scorecard program in July without obtaining the agency’s approval as long as the cost of doing so does not increase the cost of the audit program by more than 20 percent.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The DPU also rejected a $20 incentive payment to utilities for each renter they serve as part of the Mass Save program. The $20 incentive received broad support in the hearings on the energy efficiency program on the assumption that building owners take precedence over renters, who often end up being under-served. The DPU said the incentive would serve to merely incentivize the utilities to do what they should already be doing.

“The DPU is ignoring the needs of thousands of renters across Massachusetts,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Environmental groups and the utilities agree: Renters and low-income residents deserve fair access to the energy efficiency benefits they already pay for. This decision erases a decade of work by environmental justice communities, and the DPU must be held accountable.”