Thursday, April 22, 2010

State’s MASS SAVE energy rebate program a public relations disaster

It was a great idea, but its flawed execution can’t help being a black eye for the Patrick administration. The idea was to do for appliances what the cash-for-clunkers program did for cars. Massachusetts had over $6 million to give out in rebates for energy-inefficient washers, refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers. The rebates ranged from $50 to $250, depending on the appliance. Count me in! Too bad the state wasn’t up to the task.

My clothes washer needed replacing. I dutifully followed all the state’s instructions. I went to my appliance store, and decided which model suited our needs. Got the number. Went on to verify that the washing machine was eligible for a $175 rebate. That’s no small change.

The next step is where it became trouble. The process required people to go online to register, but not before 10 AM on April 22, Earth Day. I was then to take the rebate confirmation number to my appliance store, buy the washing machine, and by June have sent in the proof of purchase and delivery, along with verification that the old washing machine had been removed. A phone number provided was an alternative to the online registration.

Media reports had warned there’d be a rush this morning. I set my kitchen timer, and the countdown began. At 9:59:59 I went online. The message was Access is denied. You do not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials that you supplied. I tried again and again. Same message.

I started dialing the number. Again and again and again. Busy, busy, busy. Every once in a while there would be no busy signal, and I’d think I was about to get through, but the line had just gone dead. I was simultaneously trying to work the web site, also to no avail.

Thirty-five minutes later, I did what any logical journalist would do; I emailed Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, charged with overseeing the program to alert him to the melt-down. More dialing, more busy signals, more online rejection. Followed up with a telephone call to Ian Bowles' office; he was out. Told his secretary their operation had crashed if, in fact, it was ever up. She indicated they were working on the problems.

One hour later, the web site message had changed (been upgraded?) to “service unavailable.” Now at least it wasn’t a question of my lack of permission or credentials. That barely made me feel better. An hour and a half, the message was “The resource you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.” quoted Energy Department spokeswoman Lisa Capone. "Our phone lines are jammed from the call volume. The web site is down. We are advising people to keep trying -- the problem will be resolved -- and thanking them for their patience in the meantime." Small consolation.

My appliance dealer, Jim Tiseo of Poirier, pictured here, had been in at 7 a.m. to get ready. He knew it was going to be a busy day. However, he also “knew it could be a disaster,” and it was. He was concerned that the appliance dealers would get blamed, and, he said, that’s exactly how things were turning out.

An hour and ¾ into the process, I learned from that the Department of Energy Website was advising people to try downloading the form at Again, the discouraging messaging that "Service is unavailable."

Just about two hours into the drill, using the new URL, I hit pay-dirt. The non-advertised website notes that, of the nearly $6 million allocated to the program, only $1.5 million remained. All I wanted was $175 of it. Within minutes of finally getting the form, the Boston Globe reported, the rebate pool was drained.

With rebates approved on a first-come, first-served basis, some people inevitably would come up empty-handed, but if operated as advertised it would at least have been fair. The messed up process clearly tilted the playing field against those who went on the site in a timely way, but couldn’t spend the hours it took to download the form and confirmation number. This wasn’t fair and doubtless gave many thwarted individuals yet another reason to be cynical about state government.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. I was lucky enough to be able to take time off to stay home and participate in this futile effort. I wonder if those who really needed the savings the most were in some employment situation in which they couldn't take the time off for fear of losing their jobs. As much as I respect Earth Day it was an odd time to open up the system, on a regular work day when the Internet is used heavily. I know that Comcast was down in my area and that also contributed to my not being able to get the rebate.

  2. I wasn't familiar with the program before seeing stories about it on the Wednesday evening news. I think the individual rebates should have been much smaller, spreading the available dollars across a larger number of customers. Just look at the kind of energy rebate dollars that have been available for years. A small increase in those dollars and some advertising would have been a much more effective program. Is this program unique to MA, or is it just our version of what is happening in other states?

  3. Do you really need a rebate to afford a washing machine? How about leaving the rebates to people who need them?

    Given your effort to cash in, you would obviously be in favor of a flat tax - why should you pay a higher rate than the lower classes?

  4. Shame on me for being disappointed and frustrated about the mis-management of this program by the state. For weeks I've told my wife that there was no way they could pull it off from a technology perspective, so shame on me - I should have known better and not have spent as much time shopping for appliances and on the Mass Save website. What a scam. As for Mark B, does he take deductions on his taxes? Will he forgo his social security checks one day?

  5. Monday morning QB is easy. The powers that be did something. That's better than nothing. They created an excitement and buzz about energy conservation. Shame on those that felt they should get government money to save resources for the next generation! Just like the "Tax Free Day" consumers can save 10, 20 30% or more on sales at many retailers throughout the year, but when is comes time to rip 5% out of the state coffers you can't hold John Q Public back? I will never understand it. Why can't people just buy what they need when they need it in a rational manner from the retailer that best suits their needs?

  6. Easy for you to say Cris. As the head of sales for an appliance retailer you stood to benefit more than anyone on a program like this.

  7. Thought you all should know that I received a thoughtful note from Ian Bowles, Secretary of Energy and Environment, that the state will provide rebates to all of the individuals on the waiting list and that the state will restructure the rebate program and run it again in the near future to address the concerns of people who had a frustrating experience. He wrote,"the Governor and I feel a strong need to address the concerns of frustrated consumers." He also says that the fact that demand exceeded available funds speaks both to the success of the program(despite its frustrations) and the presence in MA of a lot of residents interested in energy efficiency. The real challenge, as he wrote, is channeling that interest into other energy efficiency programs and getting people to take the larger step of getting a free energy audit and assessing lighting/heating/cooling/insulation/weather-stripping as well as appliances. If so, we could all save.