Affordable heat: It's a pressing concern in Washington County, where a high percentage of homes are older and an aging population lives with stressed budgets. While the answer to affordable heat can't be plucked from the magic hat and applied in one easy pass of a wand, the Eastport‑based Thermal Efficiency: Eastport and its advisory group, the Affordable Heat Consortium (AHC), are working on solutions with a three‑pronged approach: a blueprint for financing; an educational outreach component with in‑house heat audits and consultations; and bricks and mortar demonstration projects.
The consortium is spearheaded by Jon Calame of Eastport, who in 2011 moved to the city with his family to implement the project, which has the specific goal of creating an affordable and renewable heating model that could be replicated around the country. With the consortium he has brought together a number of organizations and individuals, all with an interest in meeting the project's goal head‑on with a combination of short‑ and long‑term strategies. The top goal is to create a model that meets the needs of those who spend more than 15% of their after‑tax income on heat. The cost of heat to homeowners should be between 7% and 15%. Anything above that range is considered a condition of "fuel poverty." Income that normally would go to other fixed costs such as insurance, real estate taxes, healthcare, utilities and food suddenly begins to be eaten away disproportionately by heating costs.
Free or low‑cost heat audits in June
The short‑term and immediate strategy is to help homeowners in Eastport understand their options. Calame has contracted with a certified auditor, who will come to Eastport in the first half of June to conduct heat audits on 10 or more homes. Calame explains, "Because of Efficiency Maine rebates for this work, the total cost for the audit and five hours of air sealing upgrades, done by the visiting team, to the property owner will be $200. Of this, our program is ready to offer further subsidies on a sliding scale, bringing the full cost to participants to $0‑150." He adds, "We are recruiting willing homeowners. We think this is an excellent opportunity without drawbacks. The team will implement simple improvements on the spot and provide a detailed report on other weatherization actions that could further lower heating bills for next winter." Audits generally cost around $600 without rebates or other incentives.
In addition, two AHC heat coaches are available starting the week of May 5 to homeowners for "free information and consultation, basic heat audits and preliminary air sealing for all participants. This process is meant to illuminate options for more affordable heat," says Calame. All are welcome, he adds. Two offices are set up, one conventional and one quirky: on Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. office hours will be conducted by Calame's research associate, Asher Woodworth, from a tent under the APEX gas price sign at Baycity Garage on Route 190; and on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 12 noon office hours will be conducted by Calame at The Commons office in the right bay of the storefront in the downtown.
Finding the financing key
Financing, of course, is the missing rabbit in the hat. In order to create meaningful change to a household or small business budget, an efficient heating system needs to be in place along with other energy efficiency measures in order to free up income. The prevailing wisdom has been to conduct the energy efficiency "envelope" changes first: sealing drafts, insulating attics, installing storm windows and doors, and implementing other tightening‑up measures. If the budget allows, then conventional wisdom suggests the addition of insulation in more costly applications such as in existing walls. Energy policies that guide state and federal energy programs and financing have been geared toward the envelope first followed secondly by heating system replacement.
At an AHC meeting held on May 2 in downtown Eastport, participants ranged from City of Eastport Energy Committee member and South Street Greenhouse owner Sally Erickson, Washington County Council of Governments Executive Director Judy East, Sunrise County Economic Council TIF Manager Ken Daye, Washington Hancock Community Agency Director of Housing and Energy Services Bobbi Harris, Northern Maine Development Commission Director of Regional Planning Mike Eisensmith, Aroostook Partnership for Progress President/CEO Robert Dorsey, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point Energy Department Director Normand Laberge, and, by phone, Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor's Energy Office in Maine. Calame was joined by Woodworth in presenting research gathered over the last year of the consortium's meetings. In addition Harry Dresser, director of the company Maine Energy Systems, was on hand to discuss the ins and outs of renewable energy systems, rebates, tax credits and implementation strategies.
The problem, Dresser told the consortium, is that the energy "envelope" savings will never put enough in the purse to purchase a new heating system, especially with No. 2 heating fuel costs continuing to rise. Maine homes have one of the highest dependencies on No. 2 heating fuel in the country. Instead Dresser suggested that research in Europe shows that when a highly efficient, renewable fuels system is put in place the savings are felt immediately and can be used to finance the loan to pay for the system and for envelope tightening. Banks that "get it" are beginning to surface in Maine, he said.
Dorsey supported Dresser's comments by discussing a biomass working group in Aroostook County that built the momentum for two regional banks to create six‑year heating system loans at a 4‑5% interest rate that requires no equity from the homeowner. "They have done this for three to four years and have had no problems" with default, he said. "We're encouraging them to go to the next step, a loan of longer duration of 10 to 12 years." In addition, he said, the banks have not stipulated the type of energy source for the heating system, so it could be used for a combination or wide range, including solar, geo‑thermal and biomass.
However, no matter how good the loan program and the cost savings of the energy efficient new system, there will be some residents who cannot afford to embark on the journey. "We're dealing with people below the non‑affluent level," explained Harris. Grants will remain a necessary part of the picture. "Given the magnitude of the problem, we won't get to scale without grants. The scale of poverty is so much, the need so great, there's a hole in the doughnut that the incentives and loans aren't going to fill," added East.
The State of Maine has a number of energy‑related loan, incentive and grant programs, many offered through Efficiency Maine. Woodcock outlined ways the "state is trying to tackle the issues" discussed by the consortium. A new bill has been passed, he told the group, to create an Efficiency Maine program for lower income residents to have their homes assessed and to create a monthly payment schedule. In addition, he noted a new loan program through Efficiency Maine PowerSaver that will allow for lower credit score eligibility for five to 20 year loans from amounts of $7,000 to $25,000 with an interest rate at 5%. However, utilizing Efficiency Maine programs must be done carefully, said Dresser. Utilizing one program may nullify future use of the same program or another.
For more information about the June BPA‑certified home energy audit or other Thermal Efficiency: Eastport audit services or information, contact Calame at 853‑0607 or e-mail <email@example.com>.