Heating oil costs will rise by more than 40% this winter, straining the Mainers who rely more on the pricey fossil fuel than anyone else in the country and underscoring the state’s push to cut costs and carbon emissions by subsidizing heat pumps and home-weatherization projects.
University of Maine professor Jonathan Rubin, an energy economist who directs the school’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, said the increase in oil costs could push more residents to make a change.
“It’s a wake-up call, right? I mean, oil prices are incredibly volatile. This is not unusual,” he said. “For low-income individuals, this is really a big deal. We know who those people are — they’re often elderly on fixed income, some of our rural residents with some old housing stock.”
Maine is the most heating oil-dependent state in the country. Sixty percent of residents use it as their primary heat source through the state’s frigid winters, often in drafty, aging homes. Heating oil costs are expected to be particularly elevated this season in northern Maine.
The financial aid to help with those costs is run through groups like Aroostook County Action Program. CEO Jason Parent said demand has been measured so far this season, and they haven’t received applications yet from hundreds of qualifying clients.
“Those are the people that I worry about, because they’re already vulnerable,” he said. “The difference between not receiving that benefit last season, where the price of oil was and ... the kind of winter we experienced last winter, which even up here was relatively mild, and what we’re looking at this year, both for the cost of heating oil and for what the winter sounds like it may be like, are both things that sort of keep me awake at night.”
He said the County saw the state’s greatest increase during the pandemic in people who needed fuel assistance for the first time. This year, to account for ongoing economic instability, he said they’ll allow people to qualify based on shorter-term changes in income.
Parent said he’s most concerned they’ll see an uptick in the need for all kinds of assistance later on, toward early spring, as aid programs expire and fuel prices continue to increase.
UMaine’s Rubin said the cost of other fossil fuels, such as gasoline, propane and natural gas, will rise this season too — all driven by the fluctuating crude oil market. Lawmakers, including Maine’s senators, have discussed releasing fuel from strategic reserves to offset these costs. But Rubin argued that oil’s inherent volatility is a risky reason to dip into the emergency supply.
He said Maine is particularly volatile to these price shocks because it imports most of its energy and produces no fossil fuels of its own. Adding to this difficulty are a cold climate and very old housing, plus the extra economic pressures of COVID-19 and a period of high inflation.
“This is a good reminder that getting off the dependency of oil is good for the pocketbook and it’s good for the climate. I think it’s absolutely clear,” Rubin said. “Hopefully people listen this year and do it. There’s a lot of inertia.”
Rubin said he switched his home heating from oil to natural gas when that service became available on his street in Bangor. He expects the change to pay for itself within seven or eight years — right now, he’s saving about $1,000 a year.
Modern, efficient heat pumps have become an even cheaper alternative for homes that can be retrofitted to support them. They can cut heating costs by 50% versus oil and even more compared to propane and electric baseboard heaters, said senior program manager Andy Meyer of the quasi-governmental organization Efficiency Maine.
The electrification advocacy group Rewiring America says Mainers who use fuel oil or propane could save an average of about $540 a year by switching to heat pumps.
Efficiency Maine has given out rebates for about 70,000 heat pumps to date. Last year, they surpassed the goal of the state’s climate change plan to install 20,000 new heat pumps per year, putting them on track toward the ultimate target of 100,000 by 2025.
Parent, with the Aroostook County Action Partnership, said the state’s push for heat pumps has helped his clients save money. The group encourages and subsidizes its heating oil assistance clients to install the devices as a way to reduce demand for aid money.
“We really took the mantle of getting that done very seriously,” Parent said. “We’re working through a waiting list of about 150 households that are home energy assistance program customers who have requested to have a heat pump installed in their home.”
Meyer said better insulation and air sealing go hand in hand with these installations, and they pay off in more ways than one.
“If people have ice dams or frozen pipes or particularly cold rooms, that's something that we as Mainers have just learned to live with for generations, and now people are realizing you don't actually have to do that,” Meyer said. “What we hear people report when they do weatherize — they often weatherize to save money — they'll comment how comfortable they are.”
Among the many rebates Efficiency Maine offers are checks of up to $1,200 for installing heat pumps, or twice as much for low-income residents — those who receive winter heating assistance or have home values below certain levels depending on their county.
The maximum rebate for insulation work is $3,000, or $9,000 for low-income customers. People can also get $500 to $600 back for air sealing and energy audits.
Efficiency Maine also offers low-interest loans of up to $15,000 over 15 years, Meyer said, meaning some energy upgrades with rebates offer immediate savings. Residents can use the group’s website to shop for contractors and compare the cost of different technologies.