In March, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposed a rule that would mandate the manufacture of natural gas furnaces that meet a 92 percent or higher specification for energy efficiency. At first glance, the rule appears to be a positive step forward for energy efficiency. In reality, DOE’s proposal would create a number of counterproductive and unintended consequences that could increase energy use.
As I noted in a previous blog post, the rule would put prohibitive installation costs on many consumers, potentially undermine energy efficiency programs and incentives, and lead to higher energy use and emissions from customers induced to switch to less efficient electric equipment.
In this post, I want to focus on the economic burden placed on consumers and in particular low-income households, which are disproportionately vulnerable to higher costs.*
On April 13, DOE held a public meeting on the proposed rule. In its response to concerns about how the rule will affect low-income households, DOE stated that “most low income households are tenants.”
DOE’s argument is that property owners, not renters, are responsible for the higher upfront costs of a furnace installation. Tenants do not have to cover the costs of a higher efficiency furnace, but would enjoy the lower fuel savings. Consequently, low-income households, most of which DOE says are renters, are insulated from the higher costs imposed by DOE’s rule.
Except this is not true. An analysis of US Census data** shows that 53 percent of low-income natural gas households are owner-occupied. Less than half are renters. In fact, 1 out of 7 U.S. households is low-income with a natural gas furnace.
This means up to 9 million low-income home owners with a natural gas furnace would be faced with higher upfront costs imposed under DOE’s rule.
Because low-income households have fewer resources to pay for the installation of a higher-efficiency gas furnace, they are more likely to switch to less-expensive electric equipment that costs more to operate. This, in turn, means low-income households are more likely than other homes to see higher utility bills under DOE’s rule.
Even renters could pay more. If a property owner cannot or chooses not to cover the upfront costs of a furnace installation, they may make a switch to less efficient equipment, in which case fuel costs will go up. Many renters pay separate utility bills (myself included). Landlords of these properties don’t see operating costs, so they don’t directly benefit from an upgraded furnace.
Ironically, even the study that DOE cited notes that rental units are less likely to have efficient equipment. In fact, it’s this principal-agent problem that stymies a lot of energy efficiency potential. Are we to just assume, as DOE does, that no landlords will switch to lower-cost electric equipment?
The disproportionate effect of higher costs is one reason why 71 percent of gas utility efficiency programs target low-income customers.
The rule may have a pernicious secondary effect on low-income assistance. Each year, through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Federal government assists the most vulnerable households to meet heating and cooling needs. But the program is stretched already.
Current LIHEAP funding leaves 4 out of 5 eligible households without assistance. The furnace rule could exacerbate this condition. If this rule induces customers to switch to higher cost heating fuels, the requirements of a low-income program like LIHEAP will increase, putting further strain on the program.
Industry concerns about this rule are not about taking a position against energy efficiency. Natural gas utilities have a demonstrated track record of supporting efficiency and reducing household gas consumption. Rather, it’s about re-examining a top-down prescriptive approach and instead applying a comprehensive vision for furnace efficiency, one that recognizes proven approaches that are cost-effective and protects all customers.
*Here’s a rundown on the costs. A 92 percent efficient furnace costs roughly $300 more than unit rated at 80 percent, which is the mandated minimum today. However, the installation cost of these higher-efficiency furnaces be in excess of $1000 to $4000 more, a result of new venting requirements that may be difficult or impossible in some homes.
**AGA analysis of the U.S. American Community Survey, 5-Year 2009-2013 multi-year combination microdata files, accessed via DataFerrett. The summary table shows the breakdown of occupied households with natural gas space heating by tenure and income level (using $45,622 as the low-income threshold)