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Electric bills will increase to meet state climate goals but equity questions loom

S Junker

Patrick Flanary: Thanks for joining us this Morning Edition. I'm always a little giddy when we have a guest in studio. And we want to talk about energy bills. We got some unwelcome news this Thanksgiving week: Your energy bills could soon be going up. The question "by how much?" just got more interesting. Here to break it all down is CAI's climate change reporter Eve Zuckoff to explain what you can expect this winter. So you're the bearer of the bad news, Eve.

Eve Zuckoff: I am. I am. Hi, Patrick, thank you for that introduction.

Patrick Flanary: Oh, any time. So, let me get this out of the way, for the Cape and Islands how are our energy bills going to look different over the next few years and why are they going up?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes. So let me tell you about these numbers. Most people, on average, will have to pay an extra $120 a year. Low income folks, on average, will have to pay somewhere around $15 extra a year. Now, those numbers are somewhat subject to change, but that really is the ballpark we're talking about. And this is happening because every three years, energy efficiency service providers like National Grid, Eversource and, locally, Cape Light Compact are required to reset how much will pay for energy efficiency services. It's kind of a mouthful, but what that really refers to is the programs where they come in and they insulate and seal older homes, they hand out energy saving light bulbs, offer rebates on higher efficiency refrigerators. Those are energy efficiency services. So this fall, Cape Light Compact said OK, to pay for those programs, to expand them and meet some new state goals, we need to charge individual consumers quite a bit more.

Patrick Flanary: Well, such such great timing for us. Well, let me ask you this. Are the increases here on the Cape in line with what's happening elsewhere in Massachusetts? Are we paying more than other people are paying?

Eve Zuckoff: Patrick, I wish I could tell you that across the state, everyone is going to feel the same increases, but that's not really the case. Efficiency surcharges that would be borne by the Compact's residential ratepayers are a lot higher than those experienced by Massachusetts residents who are served by utility administered energy efficiency programs. And that's partially just because of administration costs. Cape Light Compact is a smaller outfit than these other utilities.

Patrick Flanary: Yeah, but Cape Light Compact has always sort of provided these energy efficiency services. So what's changed now? Why are we seeing the rates go up by so much?

Eve Zuckoff: Well, earlier this year, the state passed major climate legislation, right? We talked about this before, and it says Massachusetts is committed to cutting carbon emissions in a really, really significant way. And in the building sector, that's going to require residents and businesses to move off of oil, propane and gas heating systems and on to electric heating systems. And we're generally talking about heat pumps when we say that. But expanding of energy efficiency programs and incentivizing more electrification is really expensive. So Cape Light Compact and the state's utilities are turning to rate increases for people like you, me and every other business, town and individual that buys electricity.

Patrick Flanary: So Cape Light Compact needs to measure up to the state's goals and then figure out how it's going to spread around these costs to different energy efficiency programs. Is that right?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes, exactly.

Patrick Flanary: OK. So the state is considering how to do this well, what are the factors the state and Cape Light Compact and the other utilities are trying to balance?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes, to be clear here, the state is the one that needs to approve Cape Light Compact's plan. That's what we're kind of in the process of now. And there's kind of a big three when you're talking about what are the forces you need to balance, and it's cost, equity, and effective climate action. The question here is: how do we provide energy efficiency incentives in a cost-effective way to people who couldn't otherwise afford to transition to clean energy? Because traditionally energy efficiency incentives have gone toward the upper middle class. And that balance needs to be shifted toward the low-moderate income homeowners. The state and Cape Light Compact -- they actually both agree on that, but they haven't agreed on how it's going to be possible. The two parties are actually right now going back and forth on this one energy justice initiative that's part of what we'd be paying for with these rate increases. The state says the initiative is too expensive. The Compact says it's necessary and a really good program that would put solar panels, a battery system and a heat pump into a bunch of low-income homes. And right now, these two parties are in a deadlock. So this is all to say this is really hard stuff, Patrick.

Patrick Flanary: I'm trying to follow it.

Eve Zuckoff: I get that. But it's so important because what's happening right now is that the rubber of climate legislation is hitting the road, and it turns out it's really expensive and really hard to navigate in a just way.

Patrick Flanary: And you're really good at boiling this down because end of the day here, we're going to be paying more for heating bills. There's no way around it. It's going to affect all of us. Some will pay more than others. The story's still a moving target. Where do we go from here? What's what's on the horizon?

Eve Zuckoff: Yes. I mean you nailed it. Our electric bills will go up. Even if you take out this energy justice package, if the state says no, no, no, too expensive, other energy efficiency services will need to be paid for. The state will give us a better sense by February 1st. Until then, for those who want to participate in this public process, there will be public hearingsvia Zoom Wednesday, Dec. 1 at 7:00 p.m (here is the zoom link) and Thursday, Dec. 2 at 2:00 pm (here is the zoom link), where we'll likely begin to hear more people raise questions about whether Cape Light Compact's rate increases are equitable. That's going to be the venue for that. So between those potential public criticisms and the state's finger wagging over the energy justice initiative, we've just got to stay tuned on this story. It really is just the beginning.

Patrick Flanary: Yeah. After the Thanksgiving dinner table arguments, we can all get around the Zoom camera on December 1st and 2nd. But in all seriousness, we can find out that information on the website: www.capeandislands.org

Eve Zuckoff: That's right.

Patrick Flanary: Eve Zuckoff, always great at boiling down the convoluted and confounding stories for us here as they relate to climate change and our lives. Eve, as always, thank you.

Eve Zuckoff: Thank you!

More information about public hearings:
For audio only access to the hearings, attendees can dial in to either hearing at (646) 558-8656 or (301) 715-8592 (not toll free) and then enter the Meeting ID# 857 0665 4588 for the December 1, 2021 hearing and Meeting ID# 844 7571 6947 for the December 2, 2021 hearing. If you anticipate providing comments via Zoom during either public hearing, please send an email by Monday, November 29, 2021, to jeffrey.leupold@mass.gov with your name, email address, mailing address, and hearing date. If you anticipate commenting by telephone, please leave a voicemail message by Monday, November 29, 2021, at (617) 305-3684 with your name, telephone number, mailing address, and hearing date.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.