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As Maryland moves tentatively toward meeting aggressive goals over the next several years to combat climate change, the state will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit homes and apartment buildings occupied by low- and middle-income residents.
That’s the conclusion of a report issued this month by a coalition of national and state-based environmental groups. If the state doesn’t make the necessary investments to convert the homes of its poorest residents away from fossil fuels, Maryland will fall well short of its climate goals, the study found — and could accelerate a public health crisis in low-income dwellings.
“Equitably electrifying the state’s building sector is a pillar to achieving the state’s climate goals and of [the Climate Solutions Now Act legislation of 2022],” the report, “Charting a Pathway to Maryland’s Equitable Clean Energy Future: Electrification and Building Upgrades for Low-Income Residences,” concludes.
All across the state, Marylanders are slowly taking steps to convert and electrify their homes, reducing the amount of fossil fuels being burned to heat and provide electricity. But rental properties are lagging behind for a host of reasons, the study, prepared by Earthjustice, the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, and RMI, a clean energy policy nonprofit, found, and the state does not have a unified approach to confront the problem.
No single agency is taking the lead to manage possible solutions, or guiding people and local agencies and nonprofits to potential grant money, Susan Stevens Miller, a senior attorney at Earthjustice and one of the authors of the study, said in an interview. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many state agencies have so many vacancies, she said.
Rental units for lower-income Marylanders are generally older and rely on dirtier energy sources than homes owned by wealthier residents. About 20% of Maryland’s population, representing roughly 450,000 households, is living at 200% of the federal poverty or below, which in 2022 was $55,000 for a family of four.
These rental units are likely to have gas stoves, which emit heavy doses of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant known to trigger asthma and other breathing problems. Low-income residents often live in high-density spaces with unreliable ventilation, exacerbating interior air pollution problems. Many of these homes also have additional appliances that rely on fossil-fuel generation.
New electric options like a two-way heat pump to replace outdated gas furnaces, and electric hot water heaters to replace old gas versions, are increasingly available on the market. They’re more energy efficient, work faster, do more to combat climate change, and don’t pollute indoor spaces.
“When it comes to our homes where so much of our daily lives play out, every Marylander deserves a modern upgrade and clean air with healthy electric appliances,” Stevens Miller said.
State and local governments in Maryland will have to take a multi-pronged approach to ensure that a sufficient number of homes and apartments are converted, the study said, and the effort will involve several agencies, including the Department of Housing and Community Development, which runs and facilitates multiple grant programs, and the Public Service Commission, which regulates gas and electric utilities.
Maryland should prioritize electrifying and weatherizing residences of low-income renters by 2030, the environmental groups argue, and the state should launch a home retrofit program providing weatherization services like improved insulation, roof repairs, updated wiring, and enhanced energy bill assistance to accompany electrification efforts.
The good news, the study found, is that more than $2 billion of government funding appears to be available to help achieve these goals.
“It’s time to build an electric future for households in Maryland at every income level,” Stevens Miller said.
The trick will be whether the state government moves quickly to qualify for certain federal grants, has adequate resources to point individuals, local governments and nonprofits to the available funding, and also prioritizes electrification in the years ahead. It will require “aligning, braiding and coordinating,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.
Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation from Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) and Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) that would have helped expedite the electrification process in low- and middle-income rental units and sought to lower the disproportionately high energy burden borne by low-income Marylanders.
But former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the measure, saying the legislation could increase energy costs for all ratepayers.
“Turbulent energy prices and unbridled inflation should inspire lawmakers to offer relief to their constituents. Instead, they have done just the opposite in this bill,” Hogan wrote in his veto message. He added that the retrofit programs are already available to all households.
Feldman and Charkoudian are back with another measure similar to the vetoed bill this year; the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment, which Feldman chairs, has a hearing scheduled on the bill on Tuesday afternoon. If the bill passes, it’s likely to be signed by Gov. Wes Moore (D). The measure is a top priority of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, a Baltimore nonprofit whose board chair just happens to be the new governor’s mother, Joy Thomas Moore.
Earlier this month, Moore released $3.8 million the Hogan administration previously withheld for a program to install renewable energy equipment at low- and moderate-income multi-family homes.
Legislation is also expected this session that would expand the scope of EmPower, the state’s energy efficiency program for residential properties, to include prioritizing greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) and Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery) has yet to be formally introduced.
The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, which represents consumers’ interests on utility matters before the state Public Service Commission, issued a study recently showing that low-income households in the state spend about 12% of their earnings on average on energy costs — higher than the U.S. average of 6.5%.
The OPC has repeatedly suggested that the state, and specifically the Public Service Commission, isn’t doing enough to expedite home conversion. OPC cites the state law that encourages gas and electric utilities to improve their natural gas infrastructure over a period of many years and pass the costs on to ratepayers as a prime example.
In its study from last fall, the OPC noted that many low-income Marylanders are spending an unusually high percentage of their income to power and heat their homes.
Gross Energy Burden by County Area, Households up to 200 Percent of the Federal Poverty Level
|Regions||Average annual energy bill||Average annual income||Average gross energy burden|
|Allegany & Garrett||$2,456||$20,366||12%|
|Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester & Kent||$3,096||$21,221||15%|
|St. Mary’s & Calvert||$2,744||$23,028||12%|
|Wicomico, Worcester & Somerset||$3,119||$21,351||15%|
While the state does operate a program that provides assistance to low-income Marylanders to help pay their utility bills, an investment in programs that provide that retrofit rental homes would be a better long-term investment for Maryland taxpayers and provide more protection for its most vulnerable member renters, the OPC has argued.
“Low-income households are not receiving the energy assistance they need,” said People’s Counsel David Lapp. “These households face unaffordable home energy burdens that adversely affect human health, perpetuate chronic poverty, and contribute to homelessness.”
Several states are starting to coordinate efforts to consolidate weatherization and retrofitting programs and to serve as sources of information for grant funding.
“It’s starting to pick up steam,” Stevens Miller said. But no state has found the perfect template yet, she said.
Even if Maryland is currently taking a scatter-shot approach to converting low income rental homes, there is growing recognition among policymakers that rental properties can be part of the solution for reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. This week, Montgomery County Green Bank, which provides funding and loans for renewable energy projects, announced that it had provided $5 million in financing for a 2.18-megawatt rooftop solar array at the 684-unit, 58-building Seneca Village affordable apartment complex in Gaithersburg. It’s the largest rooftop solar project on a multifamily property in Montgomery County.
Between the solar array and new energy efficient roof upgrades, the property will save 2.5 million kilowatt hours in energy, generate more than $300,000 in annual savings, and mitigate 2,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
“A fundamental part of our mission is to support the county’s climate goals of equitable access to clean energy,” said Tom Deyo, CEO of Montgomery County Green Bank. “This project situated in an Equity Emphasis Area [as established by the Greater Washington Council of Governments] and on an affordable housing property is such an example.”