Aaron Bartley is living proof that persistence pays off.
Bartley, the director of PUSH Buffalo, has spent more than three years pushing and prodding National Fuel Gas Co. to devote a bigger chunk of the $10 million in energy efficiency funds it controls to projects that weatherize the homes of low-income consumers.
For Bartley, it was a no-brainer. Poorer consumers tend to live in older, draftier homes, with less efficient furnaces and inadequate insulation. For those consumers, who already struggle to pay their heat bills, turning on the furnace just meant watching dollar bills fly up the chimney.
“Too many houses are Swiss cheese in this region,” Bartley said.
Yet it was a bitter fight. National Fuel resisted PUSH’s pleas. PUSH protested outside National Fuel’s Amherst headquarters. National Fuel called the cops to break it up. PUSH persisted. National Fuel went to court to get a restraining order to make PUSH stop.
But along the way, the message from PUSH and its allies in the National Fuel Accountability Coalition, slowly started to sink it. An extra $150,000 was set aside for weatherization funding in 2010 when the state Public Service Commission divvied up the $10 million that National Fuel collects each year from its customers to fund energy efficiency programs. Another $800,000 was added a year later – nowhere near the $10 million in extra funding that PUSH wanted – but it was progress.
When PUSH started challenging National Fuel to bolster its weatherization program, the company’s Customer Incentive Program set aside about $3 million for those improvements. Today, it’s $4.6 million. National Fuel’s program has upgraded 1,580 homes over the past two years.
The big payday came a little more than a week ago, when the proposed settlement to National Fuel’s current rate case set aside an additional $1.75 million for weatherization projects for low-income consumers and another $250,000 to replace furnaces for consumers who get help paying their heating bills through the Home Energy Assistance Program. That’s $2 million in additional funding that will be spread out over the next two years, assuming the PSC approves the deal. A vote is likely in the early part of next year.
“It shows the value of engaging in this kind of advocacy and hanging in there,” Bartley said. “For us, it’s about, over time, demonstrating that community entities can hold other organizations accountable.”
It wasn’t just PUSH, either. The West Side community organization cobbled together a coalition of 18 community and church-based groups. “We’ve been working on this at the community level, building alliances and talking to people in their own homes,” Bartley said.
The increased funding is a big deal because heating bills are a huge budget buster for low-income families, even though the plunge in natural gas prices has slashed the average National Fuel residential customers’ annual gas bill by about $600 since the end of 2008 to around $1,100 today, after adjusting for fluctuations in the weather.
That’s still a big burden for families that don’t make much money. A 2011 study commissioned by the New York Energy Research and Development Authority found that heat bills gobble up 12 percent or more of the total income earned by households statewide that are at or below the poverty line. Too many consumers must choose between paying their heat bills or buying groceries, Bartley said.
The $1.75 million in funding likely will be enough to do whole-house weatherization upgrades on somewhere between 200 and 250 homes, Bartley estimates. The approach is more comprehensive than less costly, patchwork upgrades that put plastic over windows, do some caulking and weather stripping, along with other lower-cost improvements.
The whole-house approach is more expensive, but more effective, too. It adds insulation to walls and ceilings, improves or replaces the heating system, upgrades the hot water tank and installs pipe insulation. State energy officials estimate that a whole-house upgrade can cut heating bills by at least 20 percent. Bartley said the savings are often closer to 25 percent to 30 percent and he’s seen instances where the savings have approached 60 percent.
Weatherization reduces the consumption of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. It saves money for the customers who can least afford to pay their gas bills. It helps reduce the costs that National Fuel – and ultimately its customers – have to absorb when consumers don’t pay their heat bills.
“It’s a wise thing,” said Gerald Norlander, the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, an Albany-based advocacy group for low-income consumers. “Even when fuel prices come down, there’s a need to keep going on low-income weatherization.”
As for Bartley, he said PUSH will keep looking for ways to get the most benefits from that pool of energy efficiency funding.
“We’re happy we got a victory,” he said. “I think it benefits the whole system.”