Energy & Environment

Weatherization Starting to Gain Steam

The federal weatherization program was bogged down in red tape, but it’s recovering.
by | December 2010
 

After a shaky start, the stimulus-funded weatherization program, a $5 billion initiative to insulate homes for low-income households, is up and running in most communities. But challenges persist. Some states still struggle to deliver services, while others worry about how to sustain the program -- and the jobs -- once the money runs out.

“It’s a real problem,” says Jim Nolan, chief of Montana’s Intergovernmental Human Services Bureau within the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which manages the weatherization program. Nolan said Montana typically weatherizes 1,300 homes annually -- a figure that increased to 3,000 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). When the money disappears next year, the state will revert to its original workload, cutting 130 new jobs. “We will be spent out,” Nolan says.

A year ago, many providers wondered if ARRA’s weatherization initiative would even get off the ground. Confusion over federal labor laws and historic preservation issues delayed work on housing retrofits until fall 2009 -- seven months after the program launched. The huge infusion of cash also swamped many of the small nonprofits that implement the efficiency upgrades -- a problem that still lingers in some states.

In Texas, for example, about six nonprofit agencies are “still struggling to administer an overwhelming amount of funds,” says Gordon Anderson, spokesman for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Texas typically receives about $13 million for weatherization -- a figure that ballooned to $327 million under the Recovery Act. The department is giving the agencies in question additional technical assistance, but is prepared to “deobligate funds” if the situation fails to improve, Anderson says. “We don’t want to leave dollars on the table.”

Washington state, which as of Sept. 30 has already completed 6,590 of 7,170 targeted retrofits, faces a different kind of challenge. “We’re looking for post-Recovery Act opportunities to hold on to new employees,” says Steve Payne, managing director of Housing Improvements and Preservation within the Washington state Department of Commerce. In August, the state did just that by landing $10 million in additional U.S. Department of Energy grants aimed at promoting innovative green technologies and seeding public-private partnerships.

Intended to sustain the weatherization effort for the long term, the new wave of grants provides another boost to the federal initiative, which has reduced utility bills and greenhouse gas emissions around the country. As of September, about 13,000 workers had been hired and 200,000 homes had been retrofitted -- up from 31,000 in February. “The program got started slower than we expected,” says Jen Stutsman, a Department of Energy spokeswoman. But as systems fall into place, she says, weatherization is becoming “one of the great successes of the Recovery Act.”

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