After owning her home in Chelsea for more than a decade, Mayra Romero knew something needed to change.
“The electricity and the gas bill were very high,” she said.
Her home didn’t have good insulation, and she paid $400 a month or more during the winter to heat it, using space heaters to supplement the gas service.
“The heat would be on all the time,” she recalled.
Then someone told her about Mass Save, an energy efficiency program that provides generous incentives for home improvements. She got spray insulation inside her walls, and Mass Save covered 90% of the cost.
“You can definitely feel the difference,” she said.
But in Chelsea, Romero is the exception. A study conducted last year found only about 11% of eligible households in Chelsea participate in Mass Save programs, placing it near the bottom of the list among communities in Massachusetts.
Similarly, Brockton, Everett, Lynn, Lawrence and other communities with high proportions of renters and non-English speakers had some of the lowest participation rates.
Homeowners took advantage of the program more often in more affluent communities, such as Bolton and Carlisle, where participation was in the range of 36%, the study found.
Renting was identified as a major factor limiting participation. Nohemy, a renter in Chelsea, said she’d love to lower the utility bills for her apartment. But that would likely require convincing her landlord to foot the bill, or to look for incentives from Mass Save.
Nohemy and her husband moved to a bigger apartment in May. They wanted more space in case a family member gets sick during the pandemic. Now their work hours have been reduced, and they’re spending more time at home.
“We are worried just thinking about winter coming and the electricity bills,” she said.
Mass Save’s incentives are designed to benefit homeowners, renters and landlords alike, offering rebates for home improvements that lower energy use.
Everyone pays to fund the program through a surcharge on utility bills, which include a line item for energy efficiency. Those funds go into a larger pool of money, which totaled more than $900 million in the last fiscal year.
Mass Save then provides rebates and subsidies for home improvements, ranging from energy-saving light bulbs to cash back worth thousands on big-ticket items, such as high-efficiency boilers.
But the benefits of the program have been distributed unequally, said Mary Wambui, who sits on the Energy Efficiency Advisory Council, the board that oversees Mass Save and other state initiatives. Advocates have tried for years to draw attention to the disparity, Wambui said.
Communities such as Chelsea, Lawrence and Brockton have also experienced higher rates of COVID-19, and they bore the brunt of environmental problems for years, she said.
“It's very sad to actually see that, even when it comes to energy efficiency, they are still the same communities that are left behind,” she said.
Ruth Georges, an energy efficiency community strategist with Eversource – one of the major utilities in the Mass Save collaborative – acknowledged the program can do better to reach more homeowners. She said the group is partnering with community organizations to tailor their approach and brainstorming ways to offer incentives to landlords.
“We clearly see there is disparity,” she said. “We see what the gaps are. And so, while we are working to resolve and address those gaps, we’re also working … to think of practical approaches to create those benchmarks so that our goals are sustainable, they’re practical, and they really allow us to reach those who are most in need of our services and programs.”
National Grid, another Mass Save partner, said in a statement it supports equal participation in its energy efficiency programs and will collaborate with others to improve its programs in response to the study.
Romero, the Chelsea homeowner, wishes she had learned about Mass Save sooner. She estimated that her family now saves about $100 per month on home energy bills.
“I feel like when I come home, I can de-stress and be comfortable because it’s a lot warmer in the winter,” she said.