BOSTON — A plan to boost energy efficiency could hike surcharges for low-income consumers while benefitting other customers.

State regulators are redrawing plans for energy efficiency programs, including the fees on electric bills that pay for them. A proposal under review by the state Department of Public Utilities notably raises fees for low-income customers while lowering them for others.

Jerrold Oppenheim, a Gloucester lawyer who represents advocacy groups opposed to the changes, said the shift will increase energy bills on low-income users from $44 to $71 a year, while saving other households $6 to $13 a year.

"To put it another way, the department proposal would assess low-income families the cost of about half to 70% of a $100 cart of groceries, in order to finance a non-low-income benefit that amounts to two or three $4 lattés a year," Oppenheim wrote to regulators.

He said the fee hike could be challenged for violating a state law requiring that "electricity bills for low-income residents should remain as affordable as possible."

The attorney general's office is also calling on regulators to scrap plans to re-calculate the surcharge.

The fee supports Mass Save, a utility-sponsored program that encourages energy efficiency. Changes to how the fee is calculated and discounted for low-income customers could effectively raise rates for those users by 11% to 18%, depending on the utility, according to the Low Income Network, a coalition of advocacy groups.

Other households could see reductions in those fees of 0.8% to 1.5%.

The Mass Save program is also funded by proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing emissions from power plants.

A 0.0025 cent per kilowatt-hour surcharge for Mass Save on utility bills hasn't been raised since 1997. The amount charged to individual consumers varies by utility and whether the customer is residential, commercial or industrial.

The fees drum up about $2 billion a year, which helps pay for home efficiency audits and other programs to reduce energy consumption.

To be sure, the state Department of Energy Resources is calling for more analysis of the plans to "to ensure that the most vulnerable customers are not unduly burdened by their share of energy efficiency costs."

Before implementing the change, the department should collect evidence, analyze the impact on utility bills and seek comments, attorneys for the agency wrote.

The review comes as Massachusetts slipped last year from its No. 1 ranking by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy as the most energy efficient state, after a nine-year run at the top.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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