Environmental justice isn’t only about where power plants get built and which neighborhoods have enough trees.
Sometimes, it’s about something smaller and less visible than that — about the people who are left out, even when we’re making progress.
Today’s Exhibit A: Mass Save, the free program that brings an energy-efficiency expert into your home to help lower your energy costs. Funded by surcharges on our utility bills, Mass Save provides or subsidizes weather stripping and low-energy light bulbs, and offers rebates and loans that can be worth thousands for better insulation or more efficient boilers. It is a thing of beauty, and it has helped make this state a national leader in energy efficiency — the low-hanging fruit of combating climate change. Every dollar spent on the program yields three dollars in savings, and even more valuable emissions reductions for all of us.
Everybody wins. Except they don’t.
Though Mass Save is available to every ratepayer in the Commonwealth, those who live in affluent towns are more likely to take advantage of it: Participation in places like Bolton, Carlisle, and Hingham is up to seven times greater than in Lawrence, Fall River, and New Bedford.
“The program as designed works really well for single-family homeowners who have money to spend to make their homes more efficient, and who speak English,” said Eugenia Gibbons, Boston director of climate policy at Health Care Without Harm. For others, not so much.
It takes time, trust, and money to participate in Mass Save: time to apply for a visit and to meet with a consultant; trust that the energy utility, which administers the program, is really offering you something for free, with no catch; and money to pay your share of the subsidized insulation and boiler bills. All three are in short supply in places where blue collar workers, immigrants, and renters are concentrated. Language barriers widen the gap.
“If folks in Springfield, Lowell, and Lawrence are paying into this program, then why should Cambridge and Andover be the places that really benefit?” said Mary Wambui-Ekop, a member of the state’s Energy Efficiency Advisory Council. “That’s not fair.”
Those who live in less advantaged places need Mass Save the most: They’re spending as much as 15 percent of their disposable income on energy bills; they tend to live in older, draftier, less energy-efficient housing; and they suffer from poorer air quality and its attendant maladies, including asthma.
We have to fix this, and not just for the sake of the underserved people who are paying into the system but not getting its benefits, though that is reason enough. Reducing fuel consumption anywhere in the Commonwealth serves everyone: It is crucial to our quality of life, and the planet’s survival.
So Mass Save has to change, and pretty significantly. It must hire more consultants who come from the communities they serve, and who speak consumers’ first languages. It must partner with churches and trusted community organizations to explain the program to otherwise wary residents. And it must rejigger the funding to provide bigger subsidies to those who can’t afford to take advantage of even reduced-cost upgrades.
For years, climate activists have been begging the utility companies that run Mass Save to better target the program’s benefits, to little effect. So it’s up to the state to prod them. Every few years, the utilities are legally required to present their plan for improving energy efficiency, and the Department of Public Utilities must sign off on it. Advocates say the draft of their latest plan doesn’t set goals that are ambitious or specific enough to redress the imbalance.
Patrick Woodcock, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy Resources, agrees. “We need more work,” he said. “Although I’m optimistic we’ll get there.”
At a public hearing on Tuesday, advocates for underserved communities will attempt to hold the utilities’ feet to the fire, pushing them to put targeted funding and clear efficiency goals behind their equity talk. No way should the state approve a Mass Save plan without it.
There are many massive, intractable challenges when it comes to environmental justice. This isn’t one of them.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the way the state’s utilities derive their income: Their revenues are not determined by how much energy consumers use.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.