Mass Save needs fixing, official says. Where they're turning to for ideas

BOSTON — Massachusetts’ efforts to meet its net zero goals and measure up to neighboring states may mean an overhaul of energy efficiency program provider Mass Save, according to a recent report from state Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer.

The state’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan outlines what Massachusetts must do to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Published Oct. 25, the “Recommendations of the Climate Chief” states that Mass Save must be reformed if the program is to “maintain its key role” in Massachusetts’ decarbonization efforts.

“It has become increasingly clear, particularly in light of the successes of sister-state entities Efficiency Maine and Efficiency Vermont, that, under the current statutory framework, the Mass Save program is failing to take the steps necessary to achieve the transformative levels of building decarbonization required,” the report states.

Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer, shown listening to Gov. Maura Healey during Hoffer's first press conference in January, says meeting the state's net zero goals may require overhauling energy efficiency program provider Mass Save.
Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer, shown listening to Gov. Maura Healey during Hoffer's first press conference in January, says meeting the state's net zero goals may require overhauling energy efficiency program provider Mass Save.

Mass Save is comprised of electric and natural gas utility companies and provides incentives for consumers to switch to more energy-efficient options through rebates, services and more. The sponsors — Berkshire Gas, Cape Light Compact, Eversource, Liberty Utilities, National Grid and Unitil — have won numerous awards and accolades, as recently as September.

Utility companies comprising Mass Save profit from more energy consumption

But while the goal of Mass Save as an energy efficiency program provider is to reduce energy use, many of these companies profit from energy consumption. In contrast, Efficiency Vermont is an independent, statewide energy efficiency utility, said Matthew Smith, public relations manager at Efficiency Vermont.

“We don’t get paid more if you use more energy,” Smith said.

Warren Leon, executive director at the Clean Energy States Alliance, said Mass Save’s model is typical across the U.S., while models like Efficiency Vermont’s are less common.

But the structure of the programs themselves is not the only aspect of energy efficiency programs that differs among states. Leon said states also vary in how heavily they fund and prioritize their energy efficiency programs. In this area, he said, Massachusetts stands out.

“Massachusetts has tended to put more funding into energy efficiency than most other states and has implemented energy efficiency more aggressively than most other states,” Leon said.

This level of investment means Massachusetts has done “more of the easy things,” like switching to LED lighting, than some other states have.

“Now, Massachusetts is in the position that to continue to make progress, it needs to tackle some of the more difficult things,” Leon said.

Back in June, Eversource broke ground on a geothermal pilot project in Framingham that was to service 140 customers in the fall. From left are Zeyneb Magavi, executive director of HEET; state. Rep. Priscila Sousa, D-Framingham; Bill Akley, president of Eversource Gas; Framingham Mayor Charlie Sisitsky; Nikki Bruno, vice president of clean technology for Eversource; and Eversource CEO Joe Nolan. The groundbreaking took place at MassBay Community College's Framingham campus.

First of its kind: A geothermal heating system is being built in a Framingham neighborhood

Mass Save primarily falls short in terms of alignment with the state’s goals for building decarbonization, the report states. The program plans in three-year periods, which the report says “do not reflect long-term decarbonization planning.”

Within Mass Save’s incentive pathways for the commercial and industrial sector, the prescriptive pathway has been developed to be effective for simpler, “cookie cutter” projects like lighting, said Yve Torrie, director of climate, energy and resilience at A Better City, a business-backed group focusing on enhancing Greater Boston’s economic health, competitiveness, equitable growth, sustainability and quality of life.

"What we have been pushing recently is that the custom incentive C&I pathway for more complex projects, like (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) upgrades or changes, be streamlined so these projects can be approved far more quickly which will allow for the largest GHG emissions reductions within large buildings,” Torrie said.

Air-source heat pumps seen as promising technology in the HVAC space

Leon said one promising technology in the HVAC sphere is air-source heat pumps, which can provide a home with heat energy up to three times the amount of electrical energy it consumes, according to Leon said New England stands to benefit most from these heat pumps in terms of decarbonization — and in terms of saving consumers money.

“In Massachusetts, there are many homes that still use fuel oil, and there are quite a few homes that have older electric heat systems,” Leon said. “And that’s a good opportunity to take advantage of.”

But making changes to HVAC systems requires deep, systematic change, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“You can’t just go into the building and a couple of hours switch out the heating system,” he said.

Eversource is building a 115-kilovolt transmission line underneath the former MBTA railroad corridor through Sudbury, Stow and Hudson. The project, which is being constructed between the Eversource substation in Sudbury and the Hudson Light and Power substation in Hudson, is designed to improve the reliability of the electric system serving Greater Boston.

'Lower-cost clean energy': Eversource begins construction of high-voltage transmission line in Sudbury

Hoffer’s report suggests Mass Save may not be equipped to handle “deep enough retrofits,” and it also expresses concern about issues unrelated to its capacity to handle increasingly pressing decarbonization efforts.

“As well, there are inefficiencies in the collaborative decision making, staffing, and leadership structure,” the report states.

Vermont official says positive attention from Hoffer makes state's work especially meaningful

Smith said Efficiency Vermont’s structure has been one of its most important successes, and this may have been something that stood out to Hoffer. The infrastructure and layout of programs at Efficiency Vermont allow leaders across multiple industries to “pull together in the same direction” to reach their efficiency and decarbonization goals, he said.

“The thing that makes Efficiency Vermont special is this development of infrastructure for so many different programs that communicate up and down the chain,” Smith said.

Hoffer has previously worked at the Environmental Protection Agency and served as chief of energy and environment bureau under then-Attorney General Maura Healey. Smith said Hoffer’s level of expertise makes her nod to Efficiency Vermont especially meaningful.

“It feels good to see people like (Hoffer) point to that work as successful and something to emulate,” Smith said. “When those experts say that, it's really worth paying attention to, because they really understand the nuances of the programs that they're trying to operate.”

As states like Massachusetts move toward their decarbonization goals, continually looking to other states’ models to find areas to improve is a common and logical practice.

“It's always a good idea to be looking to other states and programs to see what we could be doing better,” Torrie said. “The goal is (greenhouse gas) reduction and if others have programs that are working even more effectively, then let’s see what we can learn from them.”

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: To meet climate change goals, Mass Save needs an overhaul: report