Category Archives: people

Richard Meyer Low-Income Households Most Vulnerable to DOE Furnace Standard

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.

US Households with Nat Gas Space HeatingBecause 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)

Posted in appliances, environment, LIHEAP, Natural Gas, people | Leave a comment

Christina Nyquist New Report Shows Growing Natural Gas Resources: Four Things You Need to Know

On Wednesday, April 8, AGA announced the findings of a new report detailing the nation’s supply of domestic natural gas. Compiled by the Potential Gas Committee, the year-end 2014 report Potential Supply of Natural Gas in the United States, shows that future U.S. gas supplies are at their highest level ever and continue to grow. This means the nation’s domestic abundance of natural gas can continue to support customer savings, economic growth, energy security and increased efficiency and environmental solutions.

AGA_3110-Potential-Gas-Committee-Map-V-3-WEB

Here are four things you need to know about the latest natural gas numbers.

Record Supply

  •  According to the Potential Gas Committee, U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resources are estimated to be 2,515 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) as of year-end 2014 – a five percent increase since the year-end 2012 report.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that domestic dry proved natural gas reserves have doubled since 1993, and are now estimated at 338 Tcf. Proved reserves are volumes of natural gas known to exist that have been proven by exploration and development operations.
  • When combined with EIA proved reserves estimates, the U.S. future supply of natural gas now exceeds 2,850 Tcfthe highest combined future supply of natural gas ever.

Savings for Consumers

  •  Households that use natural gas for heating, water heating, cooking and clothes drying save an average of $693 per year compared to homes using electricity for those applications.
  • Strong supply fundamentals and robust delivery infrastructure suggest that natural gas prices will remain competitive and stable at a level well below the peak market prices of the preceding decade.
  • Low domestic natural gas prices have led to savings of almost $30 billion for residential natural gas customers over the past five years.
  • In 2013, the average commercial customer saved more than $2,000 on their annual bill due to low natural gas prices compared to 2008.

Direct Use of Natural Gas is the Efficient Choice

  •  Natural gas is 92 percent efficient when used directly in homes and businesses.
  • Customers can unlock greater savings by working with their local utility to make efficient energy choices.
  • In 2013, local utility efficiency programs helped customers reduce their annual natural gas usage by an average 18 percent and save $137 in annual energy costs, while offsetting 7.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Expanding Access, Enhancing Safety

  •  To ensure that more Americans can safely enjoy the benefits of domestic natural gas, local utilities are working with governors, legislators and state regulators around the country to upgrade, enhance and expand the nation’s more than 2.4 million miles of natural gas infrastructure.
  • By investing in our energy future and advancing smart policy to enhance safety and expand infrastructure, customers can look forward to continued market stability, reliable service and affordable prices.

For more information, visit www.aga.org/PGCReport.

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Lisa O'Leary Advocates Urge Congress to Increase LIHEAP Funding

Nearly 200 advocates from across the United States converged on Capitol Hill last week to support responsible funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC) sponsored LIHEAP Action Day 2015 along with member companies of the American Gas Association (AGA) and the Edison Electric Institute. The annual day-long event is aimed at building awareness for LIHEAP, a federal block grant program providing financial assistance to low and fixed-income individuals for fuel and utility bills, as well as low-cost weatherization and energy-related home repairs.

Representatives from Entergy and Atmos Energy met with Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) staff to discuss LIHEAP funding. Photo Credit: Entergy

Representatives from Entergy and Atmos Energy met with Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) staff to discuss LIHEAP funding. Photo Credit: Entergy

According to NEAUC, nearly 300 meetings took place between LIHEAP advocates and members of Congress and their staff, to discuss the need for at least $4.7 billion in LIHEAP funding for FY2016. Advocates in D.C. and throughout the country also took to social media to share important messages about LIHEAP by using #LIHEAPAction.

After many years of underfunding LIHEAP, Congress funded the program at $5.1 billion in FY2009 and FY2010. Since then, funding has declined by almost $1.7 billion and recipients have seen their assistance grants reduced by nearly $95, impacting the program’s effectiveness.  The average grant was estimated to cover less than half of the average home heating costs for a household this winter, meaning that many low-income families and seniors had fewer resources available to meet other basic needs.

This winter was especially hard-hitting in the northeast and southeast with record-breaking snowfall and cold temperatures, serving as a stark reminder of why the LIHEAP program is so critical. Here are just a few other reasons:

  • More than 35 million U.S. households meet LIHEAP’s federal eligibility criteria, yet only 6.8 million households were helped in 2014.
  • States and their charitable partners can serve households earning up to 150 percent of Federal poverty guidelines or 60 percent of median income. For a three-person family in the U.S., that’s less than $29,685, yet most LIHEAP households earn less than that amount.
  • Even with LIHEAP funding at $5.1 billion, the amount was only enough to assist 1 in 5 eligible Americans.
Rep. Peter Welch was presented with this year’s NEUAC Extra Mile award. Photo Credit: http://welch.house.gov/

Rep. Peter Welch was presented with this year’s NEUAC Extra Mile award. Photo Credit: http://welch.house.gov/

LIHEAP Action Day concluded with a Congressional reception and the presentation of the NEUAC Extra Mile award given to Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), recognizing him for his longtime support of the program. In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee penned by Rep. Welch and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), more than 145 lawmakers stressed the critical importance of full funding of LIHEAP.

AGA had to opportunity to interview several advocates in attendance of the LIEAHP Action Day Breakfast. Stay tuned for links to those video interviews next week.

Posted in energy, Natural Gas, people, utility, winter heating | Leave a comment

Richard Meyer New DOE Rules Impose New Costs on Consumers for Little Benefit

AGA_2995 Furnace Standard Infographic_web_FINAL_Page_1On March 12, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposed a new rule that would raise minimum efficiency standard for natural gas fired furnaces. The rule, if finalized in its current form, would mandate the manufacture of furnaces that meet a 92 percent or higher specification for energy efficiency.

On the surface, the rule appears to be a positive step toward achieving greater energy efficiency. However, a closer examination reveals many problems that conflict with DOE’s stated goal of improved efficiency and reduced emissions. These counterproductive and unintended consequences include:

  • An economic burden on consumers required to bear the prohibitive costs of the expensive equipment and installation.
  • The undermining of efficiency programs and the financial incentives that enable consumers to purchase high-efficiency furnaces.
  • Wasted energy and higher emissions because customers are induced to switch to cheaper equipment, such as electric furnaces, which have a much higher full-fuel-cycle energy and emissions footprint.

Natural gas utilities have a demonstrated track record of supporting efficiency and reducing energy consumption, a fact validated by years of improvements in household natural gas use. This rule would impose new costs on consumers but add little in terms of energy or emissions benefits. Here we explore in more detail some of the consequences of DOE’s action.

AGA_2995 Furnace Standard Infographic_web_FINAL_Page_2Billions of Dollars in New Costs Imposed on Consumers

DOE’s proposed rule would lead to monthly bill reductions – for some homes and businesses. Under the rule customers would bear between $6 and $12 billion dollars in new costs associated with higher efficiency furnaces (a dollar amount that AGA believes DOE is underestimating). And these costs are distributed unevenly. According to DOE’s proposal, one out of every four households that currently have a furnace would pay more over the life of a new furnace, an inequity that can have a disproportionate effect on many low- and fixed-income households.

Despite the high costs of implementation, the rule would generate only modest energy and emissions savings. According to data in the proposal, the furnace standard would lead to only 1.1 percent in energy reduction relative to no action. In turn, the rule will achieve only 0.2 percent in carbon dioxide emissions reductions compared to a case without amended standards. For billions in upfront consumer costs, DOE’s proposed energy and emissions savings are scant.

By contrast, natural gas efficiency programs today already achieve 60 percent more annual emissions reductions at far lower cost than DOE’s proposed rule would accomplish after three decades of implementation. And these savings will only continue to grow as utilities continue to invest in their efficiency programs.

Furnace Standard Undermines Efficiency Program Gains and Emissions Targets

Why are DOE’s proposed energy reductions this small? Any declines come on top of a decades-long trend of energy efficiency that has already substantially reduced natural gas use in homes and businesses. The typical American household uses 50 percent less gas than it did in 1970, meaning the US uses the same amount of natural gas to serve 30 million additional residences. This is due in large part to natural gas utilities that promote energy efficiency in homes and businesses. Ignoring this track record of successful energy efficient approaches, DOE has proposed a costly mandate that achieves only modest savings.

Natural gas utilities across the country promote energy conservation measures, including efficient natural gas furnaces. Through 112 established programs in 39 states, the vast majority of utility efficiency programs offer homeowners financial incentives to purchase and install a high-efficiency gas furnace. These incentives include cash rebates, low-interest loans, and low or no-cost upgrades for low income customers. This proven, comprehensive, customer-focused, and cost-effective approach could be threatened by the proposed DOE rule.

State utility regulators evaluate efficiency programs based on the ratio of its costs to its benefit, such as energy savings. A higher minimum efficiency standard for furnaces would elevate the baseline from which all energy savings are calculated, thus reducing the savings that qualify as a direct benefit of the program. This, coupled with the higher costs of purchasing and installing a 92 percent efficient furnace, may disqualify many furnace replacement programs should they fail the cost-effectiveness threshold that state regulators require.

As mentioned, the energy savings from natural gas utility programs are already achieving more than the savings DOE is projecting in its proposed rule. In 2013 alone (based on the most recent AGA data), utility efficiency programs reduced gas usage in participating homes by 18 percent—the equivalence of twelve days of residential gas consumption.

Furnace Standard Will Cause Higher Emissions and Lower Efficiency for Many Households

What would the effect of the rule be on a typical household? Let’s say a home has a furnace at the end of its usable life, and it fails irreparably. A homeowner will be faced with one of two options:

  • Option 1: Purchase a new gas furnace, at DOE’s stricter efficiency standard, and pay the additional costs of the appliance and installation.
  • Option 2: Switch to less costly equipment such as an electric furnace or heat pump, resulting in increased energy use, higher emissions, and larger monthly energy bills in many areas of the country.

Some consumers that choose Option 1 will see lower overall costs, but not all homeowners or businesses will share in this benefit. Even DOE acknowledges that one in four consumers that replace their furnace will pay more over the life of the equipment because of higher installation costs. The energy savings are just too modest to counterbalance the costs.

In other words, homeowners that today could not justify the purchase of a 92 percent efficient furnace (at least not without gas utility and other incentives) would be forced under DOE’s proposal to make the purchase and eat the costs.

Looking at Option 2, DOE says that 10 percent of consumers will instead switch to an electric furnace or heat pump, which increases emissions and energy use due to the inefficiencies of electricity generation and transmission.  To boot, AGA collected data from contractors that suggests that DOE’s estimate is likely too low – even more customers than DOE expects would be compelled to pull out their furnaces and install an inefficient though less expensive electric appliance. The furnace proposal ostensibly lowers energy use and emissions. This unintended outcome, fully acknowledged by DOE, runs counter to that intent.

Ultimately, DOE’s new standard will impose additional costs on consumers, induce some customers to increase their energy use and grow emissions, and negatively impact efficiency programs that already achieve greater savings than DOE’s proposed rule.

It’s time to re-examine this prescriptive approach and apply a comprehensive vision for furnace efficiency, which recognizes the proven gains from local utility efficiency programs and product choices.

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