May 27, 2018
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Leaving Maine’s elderly out in the cold

By Joshua Wojcik, Special to the BDN

As Augusta fixates on “trackers” and “dinner rebuffs,” the temperature is dropping, and Maine’s “greatest generation” is praying its oil doesn’t run out.

On my 10-minute drive home the other night, I watched in amazement as the temperature dropped from 13 to 9 degrees. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that my parents have a warm home, and then said a silent prayer for all of Maine’s elders who do not have that most basic element of security. While lawmakers skirt around the edges of a very real problem, those who are most vulnerable to the cold (our elderly) are the ones who suffer the most.

This problem is no longer solvable by turning down the thermostat, putting on another sweater or throwing another log on the fire. As a person ages, hauling wood gets harder, and even mildly cool temperatures (60-65 degrees) can trigger hypothermia. Maine is the oldest state in the U.S., with 16.3 percent (more than 215,000) classified as elderly. Augusta’s inaction on the rising cost of heating fuel has left our elders out in the cold.

This is personal for me. A couple of years ago, my folks were planning on retiring somewhere warmer. My mom worked in a drafty school office and would go home to an old farmhouse, which was always chilly. On the coldest nights of the year, my parents could not keep their house above 50 degrees. After a bit of convincing, they let me button up their attic and crawl space. The house is now warm, and we cut their wood and propane usage by half. Best of all, they are staying in Maine, which is exactly where they want to be.

Are we really the kind of state that looks away as the unstoppable force of time imposes unthinkable choices on our parents and grandparents? Heat or food? Heat or medicine? Heat or pack it up and leave your lifelong home?

Not everyone has an efficiency professional in their family, but we all feel it when the price of oil goes up. No. 2 heating oil rises in price at an average rate of 10 percent per year. The federal government predicts that consumers will need 19 percent more heating oil this year compared with last winter, due to more intense winter conditions. At the same time, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program has been cut by 10 percent this year.

Maine’s building stock is the oldest in the country, and we waste an astonishing amount of heating fuel. This isn’t academic for me. I see it on roofs when I drive to work. Snowmelt patterns and ice dams don’t form over correctly insulated attics. When I step into a building, I study the drafts and notice where cobwebs (a sign of air movement) have been spun. And my customers feel the difference when my crew is done and the home is warmer and more comfortable.

My company has upgraded the efficiency of 400 buildings with an average savings of $900 per year. Our customers typically see a 15- to 30-percent (per year) return on their investment because of these savings. We exist because the vast majority of Maine’s buildings (including a half a million homes) waste 20-50 percent of their heating fuel every year.

It boggles my mind that Augusta hasn’t stepped up investment in efficiency incentives, designed to help people afford weatherization upgrades. Wasted heat siphons hundreds of millions of dollars from the local economy each year — money that could be used to boost the savings and buying power of Maine households. Further, energy efficiency projects require local workers. In four short years, I’ve grown my company from three to 20 people. I even enticed my sister’s family back home, overcoming the trend most young Mainers face.

The majority of our elderly cannot afford the upfront cost of a weatherization upgrade. When Maine provided rebates through the federal stimulus package, homeowners signed up by the thousands to weatherize their homes. But the incentives have largely evaporated. Efficiency Maine still has an excellent loan program, but it’s not enough. There needs to be a carrot to spark the market again. Strategic investment in efficiency is the most intelligent way to protect our elderly from winter’s bite, while creating jobs and redirecting millions of dollars back into our local economy.

My folks were lucky. But what about the hundreds of thousands that I can’t afford to help?

It’s time for Augusta to wake up, invest in efficiency and bring our elders in from the cold once and for all.

Joshua Wojcik is the president of Upright Frameworks, a family-owned construction and weatherization company based in Wilton.

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