New Hampshire Public Radio reported this week on a study showing that rural New Englanders pay a higher percentage of their income on energy. This isn’t really new information. But it was a slow news week and the report’s recommended solutions seemed written to get NPR listeners to spill their morning coffees from their pledge drive mugs from all the vigorous head nodding.
The study concluded that Americans on average spend 3.3 percent of their income on energy, but for rural households the burden rises to 4.4 percent. In New England, rural households spend 5.1 percent.
The proposed solution? Energy efficiency projects. It’s probably a total coincidence that the report was released by a group called the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
It’s true that making homes more energy efficient reduces energy use, thus reducing bills. ISO New England, the non-profit that runs New England’s energy grid, noted in this year’s Operational Fuel-Security Analysis that New England states have collectively spent more than $1 billion to improve energy efficiency, slightly tapering energy demand.
Since 2005, electricity demand in New England has fallen from a combination of the recession, milder weather, increased adoption of small-scale solar power, and energy efficiency investments, according to ISO New England.
Yet energy remains extremely expensive and the region remains at risk of rolling blackouts during periods of peak demand. Another billion dollars on energy efficiency could help shrink demand a little more, but it’s not going to solve the cost and supply problems.
To ensure enough capacity for peak demand times and to bring down prices for everyone — from low-income rural households to major manufacturers — we need more infrastructure and fewer rate-raising regulations like subsidies for politically favored power producers.
ISO New England projects a 4,600 megawatt reduction in power generation capacity by June of 2021. But states and communities are rejecting the construction the new infrastructure needed to replace those megawatts.
ISO New England figures show that in 2000, coal and oil generated 40% of New England’s electricity, and natural gas just 15%. By 2015, natural gas generated 49% and oil and coal just 3%.
Fracking fueled this change. Since 2009, natural gas has become much cheaper than coal and oil (and it produces fewer emissions). But we can’t tap it from maple trees (unfortunately, because flaming maples would be pretty great on Halloween).
We need pipelines to bring natural gas here. Without more pipelines, we’ll continue seeing high prices and more ships from Russia and other energy exporting countries docking in Boston.
In recent years, pipeline projects have been rejected throughout New England with such animosity that you’d think they were importing emerald ash borers or New York Yankees players. For proposing to bring enough fuel to ensure that Red Sox Nation survives winter, they’ve been run out of town. That’ll show ‘em.
We’ve artificially restricted our energy supply and raised rates by blocking construction and heavily regulating the sector. This has hurt rural and low-income residents.
And by the way, our housing policies have done the same thing.
Rural residents tend to live in older homes, and older homes are less energy efficient. The subsidized winterizing of old homes is always the recommended approach, but it is not going to address the underlying problem, which —like energy generation — is one of artificially restricted supply.
Home construction costs are at record highs because of rising labor costs, land costs, lumber costs, credit costs, and regulations. Every one of these costs is being driven higher by government policies — from immigration to tariffs to zoning to building codes to financial regulations. Regulatory costs account for 24 percent of the price of a new home, according to a National Association of Home Builders study.
If we scaled back housing, labor, land use, trade, and energy regulations, we would see energy and home construction prices rise less quickly or even fall. People of all income levels could better afford to buy, heat, and live in new homes.
But untangling those regulatory webs is difficult. It’s simpler to ask legislators to meddle in the markets by passing laws to shield lower-income residents from the consequences of the legislators’ past meddling.