The nation’s investment in weatherization is taking a nosedive, raising concerns that newly minted technicians trained to make homes more energy-efficient will soon find themselves scrambling for work even while there remains much work to be done.
At issue are cuts to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which is used to help low-income residents make energy efficiency improvements in their homes. The program is administered by state officials who distribute the money to local governments and community action groups that run weatherization programs.
The WAP has quietly existed since 1976, but received a $5 billion boost with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. The investment, which came in addition to the continued regular funding stream, was seen as a way to provide jobs.
Since then, it has been criticized for getting off to a slow start and having a spotty job production record. A House proposal introduced in November called for its outright elimination following reports that contractors weren’t making critical improvements and were instead spending the money on work that had nothing to do with weatherization.
Still, proponents say the investment ultimately led to improvements at more than 600,000 homes while providing thousands of unemployed workers with much-needed jobs amid the housing collapse.
Their concern is that the momentum will be lost as stimulus funds run out and funding for the program falls amid efforts to trim the federal budget. The WAP program was cut from $171 million in 2011 to $65 million this year.
A group of 25 states – including Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio – are facing particularly austere years after being told in mid-February that they would not receive additional funding for the 2012 program year.
The states are being told to instead use whatever unspent weatherization funds they have to sustain their programs. The decision was made so that this year’s limited funding supply could be spread more evenly around the country, according to the DOE.
In Minnesota, which received $132 million in weatherization money from the stimulus package, officials say the decision could leave the state with less than $9 million to spend this year, crippling weatherization efforts just as momentum was beginning to build.
Minnesota officials say more than 18,500 homes were weatherized using stimulus money, and that the work created or maintained 500 jobs per quarter between September 2009 and July 2011.
Mike Rothman, the state’s Department of Commerce Commissioner, voiced his concerns in a Feb. 10 letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in which he wrote the funding level would lead to “dramatic reductions in the number of homes weatherized and jobs created.”
Rothman said in an interview that he is working with the state’s congressional delegation to build support and remains hopeful the DOE will release more money, but that he has yet to get any response to the letter.
The National Association for State Community Services Programs has also voiced concerns about the cuts, and describes this year’s funding level as the “bare minimum to survive.” Officials with the organization say they do not expect anything to change this year, however, and are turning their attention to 2013.
President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal calls for $139 million in weatherization funds, but the NASCSP and other supporters say the weatherization program needs at least $175 million to maintain the still-fledgling industry.
“We’ve built up a certain capacity and now we have to do whatever we can to sustain that,” said Bob Scott, the NASCSP’s director of energy services.