The Mayor's Roundtable Podcast

Winter Energy Costs With Energy & Sustainability Director Carole Collins

December 01, 2022 Season 1 Episode 2
The Mayor's Roundtable Podcast
Winter Energy Costs With Energy & Sustainability Director Carole Collins
Show Notes Transcript

A discussion of elevated winter energy costs, how people might be able to save money and an overview of the Inflation Reduction Act and how it will benefit residents and City government.

With skyrocketing energy costs, the City of Greenfield encourages everyone to tighten up your home at little to no cost. Massachusetts offers some of the best programs in the country and are available for everyone regardless of income level or if they rent or own. Buttoning up your home is the first step to reducing energy use now and will continue to save you money well into the future.   

Community Action of Pioneer Valley - Fuel assistance (help paying heating bills) and no cost energy upgrades (insulation, heating equipment, appliances) for income eligible residents - for example, a family of 4 making <$81,561.

MassSave - Start with a free home energy assessment and take advantage of great incentives for weatherization and energy efficient heating equipment and appliances, including access to a 0% interest HEAT loan to pay for approved measures.

Inflation Reduction Act - plug in your zip code and basic info to see how you can save.  

Episode also includes a Municipal Minute on the difference between operating and capital budgets.


(Intro music)

MAYOR: Welcome to the Mayor's Roundtable. Our second Mayor's Roundtable. And today we have with us Carole Collins, the energy and sustainability director for the city of Greenfield. She is the one person who has the most extraordinary background and information on all things energy-related, energy savings and has been extremely valuable to the city of Greenfield in her efforts to save us on energy and therefore save money for the taxpayers, at the end of the day. We are going to cover some ground today with regard to increased energy costs and how citizens and the city itself can take advantage of some of the programs that are out there to reduce energy costs, particularly this year winter fuel costs, but also under the Inflation Reduction Act, there is a lot of money due to come to cities and towns and to taxpayers in different kinds of programs that the government will be putting on over the next three years roughly, through 26, I saw on most of them. So Carol will give us some background and some information on those as well. So, welcome Carole. We're glad to have you here. 

CAROLE COLLINS: Oh, thank you. I'm very honored to be here. 

MAYOR: So, I'm looking at a flyer from an information piece from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And basically what they're saying is that energy costs for this winter are going to go up. I'm going to read from it because I found this probably the most compelling piece and that is, "On average, we expect wholesale commodity natural gas prices to be higher this winter compared with last winter which leads to higher prices for both natural gas and electricity in the retail Market Natural Gas Prices rose sharply early this year because consumption growth outpaced production growth in the first half of 2022. Strong demand growth resulted from growing liquefied natural gas-- LNG-- exports as well as a new market dynamic driving strong domestic natural gas demand limited natural gas to coal switching in the electrical power sector." So what that's basically saying is natural gas is going to be more expensive this year.

A good many of our homes and businesses are fueled with natural gas. There's also heating oil and then we all have electricity, much of which relies on the natural gas market as well.

Do you have some thoughts Carol for us and some suggestions for our listeners particularly our residents and particularly those who live on fixed incomes or have low-to-moderate incomes. What can be done to weather the storms through the winter and be able to have winter heating as much as possible at a relatively good cost. 

CAROLE COLLINS: Well, this has been a big concern knowing that with all the changes in the past year that we were expecting increases across fuel supply sectors and we're seeing that. We have put together a number of options for residents and I will also say that we're very fortunate that Greenfield does have access to a lot of different programs-- some of the best in the country.

One of the things that I will mention first that most people are probably already familiar with but we offer Greenfield Light and Power as an option for all electricity customers. The fixed price for that currently is 9.879 cents per kilowatt hour, and that is for all supply classes. And that price is through 2023. So what I hope is that by that point the market will have normalized some more but as the mayor mentioned roughly 35% of our electricity supply does still come from natural gas, so it does have a big impact on the cost. The utility costs right now is over 15 cents a kilowatt hours. So it's a significant savings and we're happy that we can provide that to the community. Anyone can opt in at any time, or out, if you choose, with no cost or penalty. And you can look for more information on for that. So that kind of will help for those who choose it with their electricity costs. 

As far as gas, it's still somewhat in flux, but we do expect them to continue to be higher. And, the same with delivered fuels like oil and propane. Those are still a little tough to predict, but anyone who has it knows it's wicked high. What we're trying to do is encourage people to take advantage of the fabulous programs to weatherize their homes. We have kind of two avenues and it's based on income. For those that are income eligible, we have Community Action. They have been a fabulous avenue to help residents across Franklin County and, and Hampshire and they provide assistance for about 8,000 households a year. They do amazing work when it comes to weatherizing homes and they cover all costs in full. So right now they're getting double the applications this year than they normally have because of how dire the situation is, but they are helping as many people as they can get to and and we just ask people to be patient, but you can apply online at or you can call up and get the process started. There is a lot of money available and more that they're working on getting so that they can address as many people as possible so that nobody is going without. And then for those that are above that income threshold and ineligible for Community Action, we have Mass Save, which is through the utility companies, and they are also as of 2022 offering amazing incentives. So we very much encourage people to go to and get their energy assessment. There is comprehensive information and the first step is to start with an energy assessment of your home. That's no cost. That opens the door to a number of programs--- air sealing insulation, replacing inefficient heating systems, inefficient appliances with Energy Star-rated equipment, and all kinds of different measures to save energy and reduce your fossil fuel use. So we highly recommend that residents go to to see what they can take advantage of. 

MAYOR: Oh, yeah, we at our household have certainly taken advantage of a couple of their programs. The insulation program and also the rebates on high-efficiency furnaces and oil burners and so forth. So we've done very well in terms of being able to take advantage of the Mass Save programs. We happen to have solar on our house, so we have definitely had the benefit of that. Are there any programs currently for residents that involve solar or do you see any coming back through the Inflation Reduction Act?

CAROLE COLLINS: I think the state is working on new programs that can benefit residents. We've had some great options in the past through a solar loan program that's currently not available, but there is a big call for bringing that back because it was really effective. I actually took advantage of and it was fabulous and I didn't even have to step foot in a bank. The market itself, the costs have come down so much and the payback is so good that I you know, it's just a very appealing option for homeowners. And that question actually leads me to another point that I think is important to address. Things keep kind of refining in the energy world. 

MAYOR: No pun intended.

CAROLE COLLINS: Right. Exactly. But the push now especially in light of Governor Baker signing the Climate Action Act is to really work on electrifying all of our buildings. And the goal is to get off of fossil fuels and again, we're gonna take more of a long-term tact. I know right now, we have some unforeseen impacts on the market, but with the Inflation Reduction Act and and the Mass Climate Act, the intended outcome is that electricity prices are going to decrease and currently the least expensive energy to produce or to build is renewables. So it's wind and solar collectively the field is working on building much more electric operated equipment, houses vehicles. So with Mass Save, with Community Action, with the Inflation Reduction Act, all of those are geared toward what we say decarbonizing buildings or electrifying buildings. 

One of the big components of that is replacing old or you know, fossil fuel-fired furnaces and boilers with heat pumps that are very, very efficient and also provide cooling as well as heating. If you want to move on to the Inflation Reduction Act, I'll just say that the target in that is to really fund very generously all of the measures needed to electrify buildings and especially toward low and moderate income residents. So yeah.

MAYOR: Not to pooh pooh the idea of more electrical vehicles and buildings that operate off of electricity. I just was around in the 70s when there was a big push for electrical too. And once they got everybody on board their rates went up right significantly, so I'm not going to fight it, but I think we can always run that risk. So anything that can be done to keep the electric company from holding us hostage I think it's a good thing.

We'll be back shortly with Carole Collins, our energy and sustainability director.



Want to know the difference between the city's capital budget and its operating budget? The operating budget represents the ongoing cost of doing business including personnel costs, such as wages and benefits for employees and retirees and every day operating costs, like liability insurance, office supplies and utilities. In Greenfield this year, which is fiscal year 23, the operating budget is just over 58 million dollars. The operating budget is submitted to the City Council by April 1st of each year. The capital budget is a blend of city planning and infrastructure development and repairs. This often includes things like replacing vehicles and sometimes includes projects that spans several fiscal years, like water and sewer upgrades or the building of a new fire station. Additionally the city has something called a five-year Capital Improvement Plan-- and a capital Improvement committee. It's outlined in the charter to review and provide recommendations to the mayor. This Five-Year Plan informs each Year's capital budget. The capital budget is presented to the City Council each year about a month before the operating budget is both the capital and the operating budget are outlined in the mayor's budget presentation also called the budget book and our deliberated on and voted on by the City Council annually in May, and it takes effect on July 1st of each year. Several years worth of budget books are available as a PDF on the city's website under accounting and finance.

(Music fades)

MAYOR: So we're back and I think we'll finish out this podcast with Carole on the Inflation Reduction Act that is in play right now and it's a significant amount of money coming from the federal government, flowing to programs for residents and programs for municipalities and to some extent commercial operators. So I would like us to focus first on the programs that are out there for residents and some are geared to low and middle-income residents and some have a more broad income base to it. But we have such things as the EV Tax Credit Program, the Energy Efficient Home Improvement Credit Program, a Residential Clean Energy Tax Credit, and Home Efficiency and Electrification Rebate Programs. Of those four, do you have a preference for how residents might best be able to take advantage, or are they all just good and different enough from one another that people have a choice? 

CAROLE COLLINS: Well, I will say that the Inflation Reduction Act is is comprehensive and what I love about it is that it's kind of a cafeteria program where you can pick and choose what works for you and there's actually great resources available where people can make a plan that works for them in their situation. So all of those are great, but they won't apply to everyone. So this money is transformative. It's gonna have such a big impact. The state is working on the details of how all all of it's going to shake out, but I will just if can read just a few quick paragraphs that I think are just to get it on people's radar.

"The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest clean energy investment America has ever made, within strategic incentives to make the transition to clean energy and a decarbonized life easy and financially smart. Its home energy offerings include upfront discounts, tax credits, and low-cost financing that together provide a substantial pot of money for every household to electrify the machines they rely on-- the cars they drive, how they heat the air and water in their homes, cook their food, dry their clothes, and get their power-- regardless of income level." 

I think that's an amazing encapsulation that really addresses everything and then I'll just add this second line because I love it. It says, "Think of the IRA, so the Inflation Reduction Act," when you're talking about it all day long, it becomes the IRA. 

"Think of it as a free electric bank account with your name on it because that's what it is. It's your own personal fund to help you go electric--- swapping out your old fossil fuel appliances for new clean electric ones over the next 10 years. We'll call it the IRA which is confusing like that individual retirement account, but the government's investing in you." So it's all good. 

MAYOOR: The more money you save, the more you have to retire on. 

CAROLE COLLINS: There you go.

So again it hits on this electrifying the buildings. I know we talked about in the last segment. So one thing I will add is, I know that that was a concern you, you had mentioned earlier. So I always like to do my own research to sort of be like well is this a possibility and it's a question I've been asking is as we go to more and more electric do we have to be concerned about costs increasing? And I always am grateful for all the smart people that just make things happen. And and so again in Massachusetts and federally they've calculated how all of this increase in electrification will impact the grid and costs and all of that, and there are numbers through some very smart nonprofits that are working on this that it'll actually decrease the cost of electricity. It's not going to be a lot initially, but still overall, we're able to provide options that are clean energy options and will cost less. So there really is, this is like I said, it's transformative. It's kind of the tipping point where we've gotten to a place where things are going to be cheaper to do the clean energy option. Yay! 

MAYOR: Well, I'll just read a couple of examples of what is available for residents for those of you out there who would love to get a new electric vehicle. This may be an opportunity for you to do that. I know my husband talks about it all the time. We don't currently have either a hybrid or an electric vehicle. So.

"The clean vehicle credit gives up to seven thousand five hundred dollars for new electric vehicles and a $4,000 credit or 30% of the vehicle's value whichever is lower, for used electric vehicles. Buyers can apply the credit directly to the purchase of the vehicle starting in 2024, instead of waiting to claim it when they are filing their taxes." So income limits on that particular program, the EV tax credit program: Individuals that make more than $150,000 per year and couples that make more than 300,000 per year do not qualify. So this is definitely for middle-income and lower income individuals who need to provide their own transportation for themselves and their families. So the price limits are $55,000 for sedans and $80,000 for trucks and SUVs. 

That's one program. The other one that's very appealing, I think because who doesn't need to save energy on heating their homes, this is under the Energy Efficient Home Improvement Credit--- so making improvements in your home that allow you to conserve energy. Households can deduct up to 30% of the cost for eligible home improvements in a year with a 1,200 dollar annual limit for equipment and installation. Such things as $150 for your home energy audit, $500 for exterior doors, 600 for exterior windows and skylights, efficient central air conditioners, electrical panel upgrades, natural gas, propane or oil water heaters or boilers. And we certainly use each and every one of those things around here and many homes can benefit from having their windows replaced in many parts of their homes. And $2,000 for electric or natural gas heat pump, water heaters, electrical or natural gas heat pumps and biomass stoves and boilers.

So that is again a tax credit that is available to residents. 

CAROLE COLLINS: Yeah, they're all great programs. And, and again as you mentioned with the electric vehicle credits, it's now expanding it to used electric vehicles, which is a fabulous benefit to those that would like to have an electric vehicle but cost is a factor. So again looking at all of the offerings that are going to be in the IRA, they've really come through and addressed all of the obstacles for most people. And with the heat pumps that you mentioned the goal is to fund a hundred percent of the equipment and installation costs for income-eligible people and 50% for anyone above that. So we're seeing just an amazing offering again to enhance what Massachusetts is already doing. And one thing I'll add is has incredible information going through the whole IRA. It has a calculator for anyone to go in but in their ZIP Code and their particulars in terms of their income and it will show you what you're eligible for for the Inflation Reduction Act. And then the other piece of that is they offer resources so that you can try to come up with your plan to take advantage of as many of the incentives that work for you. Some of them are being introduced now. Some are being introduced as you said in 2024. So they're really trying to visualize this program as as kind of a long-term vision for people to achieve everything they possibly can and get the full benefit, which is fabulous. 

MAYOR: You want to mention that website again, where the calculator is? Because that sounds really useful to people.

CAROLE COLLINS: It's very useful and it's called RewiringAmerica-- all one word-- dot-org.

And they Continue to update it as as all of the details are being sorted through with the IRA monies. 

MAYOR: That's great. So the IRA money is not just for residential programs. So local governments can take advantage too, and I'm wondering with your knowledge of how you've helped the city of Greenfield, What do you see for the city of Greenfield or any other towns in this area in the Inflation Reduction Act that catches your eye that's really helpful?

CAROLE COLLINS: Well the thing that caught my eye the most was that municipalities and other nonprofits will now be eligible for 30% credit on solar installations. That is just such a game changer. In the past, it's been very challenging to make the cost argument for municipalities to own their own solar so often we have to enter into agreements with private companies because they have the tax liability that the city doesn't. By having this new provision where we can get 30% of the cost back to us it now makes it that we can actually own our own solar which is that's just amazing and a goal that that we've had for a long time.

The other thing is access to to funding to update our buildings and retrofit to a whole other level. We've already done a tremendous amount. But yeah, there comes a point where it's just well that's not an option because it's more involved. I think we'll now be able to revisit a lot of our buildings and see if there's more that we can do.

MAYOR: And is there anything in the IRA-- Inflation Reduction Act-- as it relates to energy that helps us by additional EV chargers. And this is useful not just for the city vehicles, as we begin to transition many of our vehicles from fossil fuel to at least hybrid, and some all electric. What is in here for that? Because we are going to need those chargers for all those cars and yeah, even the city vehicles too. 

CAROLE COLLINS: That is another extremely exciting program. And where we're at right now is we're seeing the market explode on the offerings that are available across all types of vehicles. And yes, the incentives are just very appealing for the municipality to take advantage of and our goal which is also a state goal that to transition all of our-- they're called internal combustion engine vehicles-- to EV's. 

MAYOR: Before we wrap up, I was in a capital expenditures meeting this morning and the question was asked of DPW director Marlo Warner, if some of these large trucks that we are purchasing from capital. Will we ever be able to buy a clean heavy-duty vehicles? Because right now there are any according to him, I'm talking about your dump trucks and and different things like that. If you could give us a quick rundown on that.

CAROLE COLLINS: Well again, the field is just quickly expanding and changing but I know that New York City has purchased several electric trash trucks-- trash collecting trusts. They love them. They also use them as snow plows and so it's so good to see that because we can learn from them and then kind of plan for what we're going to do. So they're are across all classes. The bigger the vehicle, I think that you know, that's going to be the longer the weight, but I know that they're are more than a huge prototypes of pretty much every vehicle class currently. Dump trucks, I'm not so sure about. But with everything else there's options. And I'll just add a little anecdote that we were recently, I was working with the school department. They got a grant to get a food truck and they're doing amazing programming. So I was really hopeful we could get an electric food truck. Bad news, we couldn't. But the good news is because all of the manufacturers of electric vehicles of those type are all booked out because they're making Amazon trucks and FedEx trucks and all of these massive delivery companies are going all-electric. 

MAYOR: So, all right, then yeah, and that probably means it'll be a while before we can take advantage because I'm sure they're producing a lot for those bigger companies? Thank you so much Carole for enlightening us and just a tiny bit, anyway, on the Inflation Reduction act and how we can all begin to save energy and switch from fossil fuels to a more electrified life-- a more electrifying life.

CAROLE COLLINS: If I can just add on a parting note that I think if nothing else, I think this is a good time to plan for what you can take advantage of with the IRA and also to set up your energy assessments 

MAYOR: Before we wrap up. I do want to wish everyone happy holidays and best wishes for a joyous and prosperous 2023. You can find the Mayor's Roundtable on the city website or wherever you get your podcasts and join us again next month as we discuss housing in Greenfield with Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams.

(Music Out)