For nine years in a row, Massachusetts ranked as the most energy-efficient state in the country, according to a closely watched annual report.
But not this year.
The state dropped to No. 2, behind California, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.
While the reasons for the lost bragging rights are somewhat technical — Massachusetts was still lauded in the group’s annual report card — the slight demotion has sparked calls to reform its energy efficiency programs, which are considered vital to the state’s plans to effectively eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.
Patrick Woodcock, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, said the state is happy to have competition. But he said change is overdue.
“We have a lot to be proud of, but our ambition needs to advance and focus on rate-payer savings and innovation,” he said in an interview. “We need to make improvements.”
Officials at the council said California topped its latest rankings because of a new category for policies that support the purchase of electric vehicles, including the number of public charging stations. California ranked third among states in charging station availability, while Massachusetts ranked seventh.
California also received a perfect score for its appliance standards, including guidelines for light bulbs and several categories of home appliances. Similar legislation is now being debated on Beacon Hill.
Some Massachusetts lawmakers said the fall from the top spot reflects shortcomings in the state’s primary energy efficiency program, Mass Save, which is financed and managed by utilities.
Senator Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, said the program needs a “reset” to focus more on addressing climate change.
“It’s been fixated on saving consumers money and totally oblivious of the need to help us reach our emissions reductions goals,” he said. “The entire program needs to be rehabbed and relaunched. This ratings change is a welcome wake-up call.”
In response to the council’s report, the utilities defended the program, which they said has continued during the pandemic through virtual home energy assessments. Mass Save is managed by seven utilities, including Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil.
“Climate change is not slowing down, and we recognize that implementing innovative and effective energy efficiency initiatives and standards ... are an important component of reducing carbon emissions,” said Shaina Kaye, a spokeswoman for Mass Save, noting that Massachusetts received a nearly perfect score for its utility efficiency programs. “The sponsors of Mass Save are always looking for ways that we can evolve and improve to better serve customers.”
Environmental advocates urged lawmakers, as a first step, to approve stricter energy standards for common appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers.
“Massachusetts should adopt appliance standards, but also take this shift in rankings as a wake-up call,” said Amy Boyd, director of policy at Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. “Even though our utility efficiency programs are among the best in the nation, they’re not perfect.”
The council’s rankings are also based on building policies, utility programs, and transportation policies. Massachusetts scored 42.5 points out of a possible 50, two points less than last year.
The council praised Massachusetts for recent energy legislation it said “enabled major steps to better align energy efficiency with emissions reductions goals.”
The legislation will increase electrification by encouraging homeowners to switch from using heavily polluting oil and propane furnaces to electric heat pumps, they said. They also lauded policies that encouraged the use of clean energy sources during periods of peak demand.
While the council’s report said other New England states are making progress at becoming more energy efficient, too many states aren’t acting quickly enough, they found.
“We need to see more states follow the leaders here, and quickly,” said Steven Nadel, the council’s executive director. “Policymakers can embrace efficiency efforts to help residents reduce their utility bills and to get more people back to work, all while cutting pollution.”