Reach of energy efficiency upgrades extended under grant program

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton on Thursday answered questions about new clean energy grant programs for nonprofit low-income housing providers. Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson (left) and Gov. Charlie Baker also talked about the programs while standing in front of residences at Beaconwood Apartments, a Newton Housing Authority development.

NEWTON — Newton Housing Authority resident Bonnis Mojica saw her winter energy bills plummet from about $470 per month to between $140 and $170 after a heat pump was installed in her home three years ago.

Making available $10 million in new grants, Gov. Charlie Baker wants the state to explore other ways of extending the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs to Bay Staters who lack the means to shell out resources for the technology.

Standing on the street outside Mojica's home in Newton on Thursday morning, Baker said environmentally friendly home upgrades have been out of reach "unless, frankly, you had a lot of dough."

The initiative — which involved the collaboration of state housing and energy officials working in different secretariats — earned the administration praise from an environmental advocate who earlier Thursday bestowed a middling "C" grade on the governor's energy and environment efforts.

"This is an important step in the right direction," Environmental League of Massachusetts President George Bachrach said in a statement. "Energy efficiency is the only way we can lower utility bills for families in the Commonwealth, and it's far cheaper than more gas pipelines in dealing with energy capacity."

The $10 million, which is expected to be distributed over the next year or so, will fund a variety of programs, including $400,000 for "zero-energy" pre-fabricated homes, $4 million for green public housing buildings, and $3 million for non-profits that serve low-income residents.

Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson said some of the funds will finance renewable thermal energy in Department of Housing and Community Development properties, and the aim is to find what works best.

"These funds go towards demonstration projects," Judson said. She said, "It really is to go towards how we can create programs and then make them sustainable for the future."

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton said the grants announced Thursday follow $5 million in similar funding announced last year.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat who is weighing a run for governor in 2018, was not at the event. A political spokesman for Warren said the mayor and his family planned to spend some time in Maine this week and he was told an invitation from Baker arrived "last minute" and Warren didn't have time to change his plans.

Joel Wool, of Clean Water Action, said that the law governing the benefits for solar power production compensates renters in large multi-family buildings at a lower rate than single-family home owners.

"Because of recent cuts to solar programs, renters today are likely to receive 60% or less of the utility bill benefits of solar as compared to the benefits received by homeowners with solar," Wool said in a statement.

Darien Crimmin, vice president of energy and sustainability at WinnCompanies - which he said is the largest manager of affordable housing in the country - said, "In the Commonwealth we've seen a significant increase in solar benefitting affordable housing over the past few years."

The upgrade to Mojica's home happened before Baker took office. Amy Zarechin, executive director of the Newton Housing Authority, said it was installed in 2014 with funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

On Thursday, after announcing the new grants, Baker took a tour through Mojica's home asking about the cost and upkeep of the temperature regulating unit. Told that the equipment costs several thousand dollars, Baker remarked, "That gets to the notion you have to have the dough to make the investment to get the benefit and that's why this kind of program is important."