The President Said Weatherization on TV

July 01, 2009
July/August 2009
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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I had the privilege of being in Washington, D.C., last February, participating in a conference of the National Association of State Community Service Providers (NASCSP). NASCSP is an organization of state level leaders of weatherization programs and community action agencies. DOE’ s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) makes the homes of low-income people more energy efficient, safe, healthy, and affordable. It has a pretty good track record in that for every dollar it spends weatherizing a house, someone saves two dollars, and the planet is spared a few tons of greenhouse gas emissions. And the weatherization community is a pretty diverse group. In the green building world, I have never seen so many women and people of color involved in every facet of the work.

It was a very exciting time to be in Washington and at the NASCSP conference. The House and Senate were still debating the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, also known as the stimulus bill. Folks such as DOE’s Gil Sperling and NASCSP’s Bob Adams were literally hurrying back and forth between Capitol Hill and the conference, alternately advising members of Congress and their staff on the final makeup of the bill and getting input from conference attendees. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and went to high school in Northwest Washington, but I’d never been this close to the legislative process. They say that watching legislation being created is like watching sausage being made—not recommended if you like to eat sausage. But I found it fascinating. It looked like functioning democracy to me, although in this case it was democracy in overdrive.

Weatherization Ramps Up

President Obama has made a firm commitment to weatherizing one million homes a year for the next ten years, and even mentioned weatherization several times on television. He calls it a “three-fer.” The program helps people afford to stay in their homes by lowering their energy bills; it creates good jobs with a future; and it moves the nation closer to energy independence.

To put the numbers I am about to mention into context, the DOE budget for weatherization in 2008 was about $250 million, and local agencies leveraged about $750 million more nationwide for a total one-year budget of about $1 billion. In his 2009 budget, sent to Congress in February 2009, President Bush allotted $0 to weatherization.

The final economic stimulus bill passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama provides $5 billion for the WAP, which must be spent or contracted by the end of September 2010; increases the eligible income level for the program from 150% of poverty level (determined by criteria established by the Office of Management and Budget) to 200% of poverty level; increases the amount of money that can be spent per home from $2,500 to $6,500; and allows weatherization assistance for homes that were weatherized before 1994. It allocates $4 billion to HUD to retrofit public housing, and $510 million to retrofit the homes of Native Americans.

The stimulus bill also gives $500 million to the Department of Labor to train workers for careers in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and it increases tax credits for homeowners for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy installations.

For the weatherization community­—the state agencies, the nonprofit service providers, and the contractors who are fueled by the desire to have everyone live in a safe and affordable home—it means doing the same excellent work they have been doing for decades—just much more of it. “It’s like we have been swimming upstream for a decade,” says Joel Eisenberg of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Now we’re going white-water rafting.” The conference participants reaffirmed their commitment to quality and will not sacrifice that commitment for numbers. They know they will be judged on measurable results—energy saved per dollars spent.

Up in Alaska

In Alaska, they were dealing with a ramp-up of their own before the ARRA was passed, The state set aside approximately $250 million from a settlement with oil companies for weatherization. Training was an issue on everyone’s mind at the NASCSP conference. “We have more demand than we have available teachers,” says Mimi Burbage, weatherization and housing rehab program coordinator for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC). “So we have to import experts like Anthony Cox and Chris Clay to do some of our training.”

Since the population of Alaska is spread out thin over a wide area, a central training facility is not feasible, so the state is counting on the existing training programs and facilities to handle the extra load. When I sent an e-mail asking him to fill out an online survey for a listing in this issue’ s Guide to Training Programs for Home Performance Professionals (see p. 31), Scott Waterman, of AHFC, responded: “I am not sure we want to be listed; the demand is overwhelming. But we are bringing young people into the industry, where graybeards once ruled. We are looking at training over 1,500 people in the first two years.” (He was talked into listing his training organization anyway. If you call, expect to be put on a waiting list.)

“In the past few years, the cost of doing business has gone up. There has been a jump in fuel costs and materials costs, and the fuel cost increase makes it harder for us to transport materials to remote locations,” says Burbage. So the ARRA is coming at a good time.

“Raising the limits on spending per house was a real good thing,” says Burbage. “We could easily spend $2,500 just getting materials out to some of our remote sites.” And the increase in eligible income to 200% of poverty level means that a lot more people will have access to weatherization services—and lower energy bills. “Some of our people are barely able to pay their monthly mortgages. . . there’s no way they can spend the money for energy efficiency retrofits,” says Burbage. Now they can get the help they need. And the extra money, combined with other money from the state, allows the Alaska weatherization staff to do more to improve the health and safety of the clients they serve.

Back East

Meg Power, senior advisor for the National Community Action Foundation (NCAF), the Washington, D.C., organization representing Community Action Agencies, or CAPs, throughout the country, sums up the view from our nation’s capitol: “After the NASCP meetings, I got a lot of anxiety calls. Now when I call a state weatherization leader, I get, ‘We’re really ramping up.’ State weatherization agencies can use 10% of the ARRA money to buy equipment, hire personnel, and for training, and that is what they are doing at a fevered pace.”

And every state is doing what it can to ramp up; every state is depending on existing programs and facilities, adapted to the increase in demand. In Tennessee, for example, the state weatherization office is working with rural electric cooperatives to get people the training they need. In South Carolina, the weatherization office is working with community colleges. All across the country, in fact, weatherization agencies are teaming up with institutions of higher education and technical schools to get people trained. Trainees from the Washington, D.C., area are van pooling to train at the Pennsylvania Weatherization Training Center at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. In Ohio, the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development (COAD) is condensing the training curriculum that it has used to train weatherization professionals in eastern and southern Ohio and bringing it to classrooms all over the state.

The Maryland Energy Administration has asked 13 community colleges to train the trainers. The Building Performance Institute (BPI), along with the Maryland Home Performance with Energy Star program, is helping the community colleges to develop the course curriculum. “BPI is creating two new certifications for its weatherization professionals in Maryland and other states. Along with Building Analyst, by this summer trainees can be certified as Air Sealers and Insulation Installers,” says BPI Chief Executive Officer Larry Zarker. “The training for these certifications will take place in the field, not in the classroom.”

Out West

In Oregon, the state office for weatherization has been ramping up for several years. “We built it out of necessity when our program doubled in funding in 2002 with deregulation and public purpose dollars. We have been through this kind of ramp-up process before, so we feel more than prepared with our existing platform for training and expansion needs,” says Dan Elliot, state WAP director. “Oregon already has a well-developed and recognized certification training for our weatherization program and contractors.”

Oregon’s Residential Energy Analyst program (REAP) certification program offers a flexible, needs-based training that provides the necessary skills for weatherization professionals at every stage of their professional development. REAP was developed as a collaborative effort among Oregon Housing and Community Services, the Oregon Energy Coordinators Association (OECA), and Saturn Resource Management. The program offers on-the-job training, and cross training, which broadens the skill set of weatherization staff, making the organization itself more flexible, effective, and efficient. “OECA is now working with community colleges for the ARRA funding to have a greater impact in green training. An entirely brand-new renewable/green certification training program will be added as Oregon WAP grows and expands,” says Elliot.

Because 35% of Oregon households are renters, the state plans to use ARRA funds to retrofit multifamily buildings that might not have been touched otherwise. And having $6,500 to spend per apartment will create one of those “three-fers” that the president is so fond of—affordable housing for low-income Oregonians, great green jobs, and greenhouse gas mitigation. “Currently, many retrofits of existing properties are stalled in Oregon because of financing gaps due to lack of investment or a funding shortfall,” says Elliot. “In addition to improving energy efficiency, using weatherization funds to leverage improvements in affordable rental housing would help to fill these financing gaps and would allow pipeline projects to move forward. This would leverage the creation of additional construction jobs.  As many as 27.5 jobs are created per $1 million spent on residential remodeling, resulting in 1,100 jobs using the Oregon ARRA funds.”

All Oars in the Water

At the time of this writing, state energy offices, weatherization agencies, and supporting organizations are trying to find their way through the overflow of new ARRA reporting requirements, and new salary requirements, that come with the overflow of new money for weatherization. By the time this is published, those problems should be a thing of the past. This short article mentions just a few of the ways states will capitalize on the unprecedented amount of funding available for weatherization. When all the states get their oars in the water, there will start to be a huge transformation in the affordability, health, and energy efficiency of low-income households in the United States. This will further our nation’ s goals of achieving energy independence and security, and mediating the effects of global climate change.  
Jim Gunshinan is Home Energy’s managing editor.

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