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When The Heat Escapes Chilly New England Homes, So Does Money

Geoff Wake
Creative Commons

Every morning, Mary Hollis follows a routine. Breakfast is oatmeal with granola, coffee, and maybe some yogurt or applesauce to help wash down her medication.

During the winter, the retiree says she “shivers” through the meal.

“It’s never warm when people come to my house,” Hollis said. “It just bothers me.”

Hollis lives in a single-family home in Hartford. There’s that draft by the door where she eats breakfast. And during the winter, chills seep around pipes and through the front foyer.

“If you go out that door right there -- if it were cold, or the wind were blowing -- you would think you was outside,” Hollis said. “You can’t open it. You can’t open it and let it stay open for no time.”

So a friend recommended Hollis get a free energy audit.

As New England’s aging fleet of oil and nuclear plants retire, one way to make up for lost energy is to build more generation: new solar panels or wind turbines. But there’s another untapped energy source out there -- inefficient homes.

A home energy audit can help with that -- by sealing up houses from wind and helping to lower heating bills. But as state budgets tighten, some of those programs are going away.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, Joel Gonzalez, an efficiency contractor from Home Comfort Practice, walked through Hollis' house -- knocking on walls and checking for air leaks.

Leaky holes along the stairwell were plugged with caulk, blocking outside air. Old light bulbs were replaced with more efficient ones. And door sweeps were attached, to block cold air.

Gonzalez did some education, too.

“What is this red thing? That’s what I was going to ask you. What is this for?,” said Hollis. “That’s for the gas. If you ever want to turn off the gas, you just hit this switch,” Gonzalez said.

All New England states have some version of this home energy audit. Specialist comes to the house, there’s an energy assessment, and the homeowner gets recommendations or rebates for stuff like new appliances or insulation.

What’s different state to state, is how these services get paid for.

In Connecticut, they’re paid for by an efficiency charge on the electric bills of all customers. Natural gas customers pay a fee too.

But oil customers don’t. For awhile, money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative had been helping out those customers, but legislators took that money to plug up a budget hole.

Grace Stewart, a community outreach coordinator for Home Comfort Practice, said that budget sweep is making for a lot of confusing conversations.

“I say, ‘Unfortunately, because of the budget cuts we’re no longer able to serve you,’” Stewart said.

She has to tell people if you pay an electric bill, but heat with oil, you’re out of luck.

“And they’re very upset. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m paying into this program. I’m getting nothing out of it? That’s not fair,’” Stewart said.

“Most of the low-income families in the state tend to be on oil or propane,” said John Latour, manager of weatherization services for Community Renewal Team.

Last year, about 75 percent of his agency’s efficiency jobs were for homes heating with oil or propane.

Because of the cuts, CRT said that number is expected to drop, which is raising all sorts of red flags.

In Connecticut, oil is still the most popular home energy source. And it’s widespread across New England, too. In Maine, nearly two-thirds of homes heat with oil, which is more than any other state in the nation.

“New England’s building stock is older, and we’re in a climate that does require quite a bit of heating,” said Jamie Howland, who works on efficiency projects for Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.  

Howland said New England states lead the nation when it comes to implementing energy efficiency, but lately, states like Connecticut have regressed, eliminating efficiency services to some of the region’s most needy homes.

“We’ve made good progress - but it’s not like we’re there yet,” Howland said. “We need to get that building stock in good shape, and so there’s still a lot of work ahead of us both in Connecticut and the rest of the New England region.”

Back at Mary Hollis’ kitchen table, Joel Gonzalez goes over work done to the house. It’s hundreds of dollars worth of labor and materials -- all for free. And all because Hollis heats with gas, not with oil.

So she’s feeling lucky, and she’s feeling warmer.

“When I used to sit here and eat my breakfast the air would be coming under my feet,” Hollis said.

“Earlier, we could see the light down there, so we knew airflow was coming in from that,” Gonzalez said. “That’s completely stopped now.”

And by stopping that airflow through her kitchen, Hollis is also stopping money from leaving her wallet.

Customers like Hollis stand to save about 35 percent on their utility bills, an important savings -- in the state with the highest electric rates in the continental U.S.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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