Stimulus weatherization program off to slow start

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — In March 2009, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority gave the Department of Energy its plan to use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money for weatherization projects, expecting approval in a month, maybe two.

It took five months.

The approval process was protracted, said Indiana's weatherization manager, Paul Krievins, because the DOE questioned parts of the proposal, including the state's plan to create a centralized purchasing program for contractors to buy weatherization materials.

"The delay certainly came as a surprise," Krievins said. "We felt we had justified the process for making those decisions about our plan."

Indiana's difficulty in getting its stimulus-funded weatherization projects off the ground isn't an isolated case.

This May, a Government Accountability Office report on the use of stimulus money said that only 13 percent of the 593,000 home-weatherization projects scheduled to be completed by March 31, 2012, under the stimulus package had been finished.

The DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program got $5 billion in the stimulus package, which Congress passed in February 2009. In its first 12 months of existence, however, it had spent only 14 percent of that.

Mark Gaffigan, the director of energy issues at the GAO, said the DOE's slow start wasn't surprising given the surge in funding. "I think they've been overwhelmed with the amount of money going out of there," he said.

Launched in 1976, the Weatherization Assistance Program helps low-income families reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient. The DOE distributes funding to state governments, which in turn fund the nonprofits, community action agencies and local governments that perform the work. Since its inception, the DOE reports, the program has provided weatherization services to more than 6 million low-income families, saving them an annual average of about $440 each on their energy bills.

Gaffigan said that directing the $5 billion from the stimulus act into funding slices for local agencies and contractors had been a fundamental problem. "It costs $6,500 to weatherize a home," he said. "You have to spend the money in small chunks. It's hard to spend $5 billion in that way."

Doug Dixon, the weatherization director at the Joint Orange-Chatham Community agency in Pittsboro, N.C., is one of those who had to wait for his chunk.

In May 2009, the North Carolina Office of Economic Opportunity announced that Dixon's agency would receive about $2 million in July 2009. The money didn't get there until November, after management of the state's Weatherization Assistance Program got shuffled from one North Carolina department to another one.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said some delays were inevitable with the massive increase in the agency's Weatherization Assistance Program.

"The ramp-up was very significant," she said. "We certainly had some challenges when we first implemented the recovery act funds that we believe have now been resolved."

Adhering to stringent oversight from state agencies and the DOE has been another issue for contractors as they try to get their weatherization projects up to speed, said Liz Robinson, the executive director of Philadelphia's Energy Coordinating Agency.

"I think there were too many hoops to jump through," she said. "You burden things with too much red tape. We're spending a tremendous amount of time doing paperwork."

However, not everyone considers the slow buildup of the stimulus-backed weatherization projects a problem.

So far, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's contractors have weatherized about 300 homes out of a target of about 2,000 by 2012. However, Ken Strong, the director of energy-efficient homes, said the importance of comprehensive training for weatherization auditors and installers superseded short-term production goals.

"I don't apologize for the long windup the weatherization program took," he said.

Despite the delays in launching the projects, the DOE maintains that it can meet its goal of getting 593,000 homes weatherized by March 31, 2012.

"We're now at a run rate of weatherizing about 25,000 homes per month," Stutsman said. "We believe this rate will take us through to our goals in 2012."

There's some evidence that the goal can be met.

In Philadelphia, Robinson said that her agency not only was on track but also was projected to surpass its goal of weatherizing 625 homes by this September.

In Indiana, Krievins said that an accelerating pace by contractors put his department in position to meet its objective of having around 20,000 homes weatherized by 2012.

Despite the setbacks, Krievins thinks that the weatherization money from the DOE has been invaluable.

"There's no question it's made a difference," he said. "There are no resources we could get from other places that are going to make up for what we've gotten and been able to do for Hoosiers with this money."

(Schott is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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