The Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) doubled Rhode Island’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in February 2009, granting it $20.07 million. The WAP was designed to lower energy costs for low-income families by adding insulation, closing leaks and holes in the building, and updating heating systems. In February 2010, Gregory Friedman, the US Department of Energy Inspector General, announced “alarming” findings that many states had not spent their portion of $5 billion in ARRA funds for weatherization. He reported, “The job-creation impact of what was considered to be one of the department’s most ‘shovel-ready’ projects has not materialized.” He revealed five states’ energy departments, including Rhode Island’s, reported no use of ARRA’s weatherization funds, while continuing to fund older programs that simply subsidized energy bills for low-income families. Architects and constructors chimed in, complaining about months-long delays while families waited for tax breaks.
Weatherization projects did increase, but not as fast as funding. From 2001 to 2009, WAP used their normal funding of $1.1 to $2 million. Homes were weatherized from an average of 90 per month before 2009, to 112 to 150 per month in 2009. Still, $20 million of stimulus sumy went unused. States were allowed to use 50 percent of the funds of the stimulus package money before Congress outlined its exact specifications over the course of the year, but RI didn’t get around to them.
The Carcieri administration’s hesitation in spending $58 million in federal funding leaves little hope for the state’s green economy. Amy Kempe, the Governor’s Office Spokesperson, blamed delays on a complex “level of transparency and accountability of reporting” outlined by the stimulus package. “Some states started using the money pending the rules and regulations, but from our perspective,” she said, “we just thought it was more appropriate to wait.”
The stimulus package was ill-timed for the RI Office of Energy Resources; two important staffers had recently departed. To replace those members, as well as create positions for additional staff, the office attempted to maneuver around recession-caused hiring freezes and wage-estimating surveys required by the Davis-Bacon Act.
After the state filed their annual report that stated none of stimulus funds had been used in 2009, the Office of Energy Resources hired Senate policy aide and energy policy veteran Ken Payne to “ramp up” the programs. He came with the entourage of a lawyer, an engineer, a policy expert, and a website designer. In late February, he announced, “You’ll see a lot coming out soon,” adding that 160 housing units were weatherized in 2010 with ARRA funds.
dollars & sense
Weatherization is a simple process. First, an energy auditor conducts an audit, which can involve infrared scanning of the walls and roof and blower-door tests on wind resistance. RI’s largest energy provider, National Grid, is required by law to provide free audits for low-income residents. However, anyone who has tried this can attest to the long waitlist. Next, weatherization-specific Community Action Program (CAP) agencies evaluate energy systems (e.g. the age of the boiler, type of light bulbs) and measure cost-effectiveness of replacing or altering those systems. After evaluating the homes, CAPs direct non-invasive procedures—such as the installation of non-incandescent light bulbs, or the caulking-up of holes in between windows and walls. If needed, they hire construction agencies to install more insulation in between walls and roofs. The process costs an average of $6,500. For a larger budget, weatherization can include better windows or a complete overhaul of the boiler system. However, these more advanced measures aren’t for the impatient; good windows, for example, take 18 years to pay for themselves in decreased energy bills.
The program works. Nationally, WAP returns $1.56 in monetary benefits for every dollar spent in property values, bill collection and service shut-offs. The Department of Energy cites a $1:$2.73 ratio for cost to health, environmental, social, and political benefits. The program, when implemented, increases investment in local industries, national security (read: oil dependence), and long-term environmental health.
Experts say the push for weatherizing will sooner come from policy changes and tax incentives than individual families taking initiative. If Congress agrees to sign onto global CO2 reduction standards, residential energy usage–38 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions–will have to change. The market value inherent is seductive. Ninety percent of the 122 million houses in America are more than five years old and so inefficient that they could not be built under today’s energy standards.
RI homes are “ideally suited for building energy investments,” according to Ross Stackhouse, a senior at Brown currently writing his thesis on environmental efforts in Providence. “Providence is a very old city, architecturally speaking,” he said, and “the important thing is that homes are old and their systems and walls have degraded over time, making them less energy efficient.” However, state and local government, with the financial capacity to fix some of the degradations, have still had trouble speeding up their productivity.
For better or worse, this pace is remarkably slower than private industry. Currently, only two programs train employees for CAP agencies in RI; CCRI and the Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living both teach Green Job Energy Efficient Training. The demand for certified “green” employees has increased beyond the rate of supply of institutions creating those opportunities. “There have been scaling-up issues you’d expect both in terms of administration and on the ground. If you’re a CAP agency, you hear about a one-year stimulus, you probably don’t want to hire somebody because of this blip,” said John Farley, who represents the Energy Council of Rhode Island. One can only predict how long this extra funding will last, based on how efficient the programs will be and how they are being perceived. Although waiting to set up successful, efficient models has benefits, weatherization’s reigning principle remains: as soon as possible.
States must walk a fine line when it comes to funding energy efforts. An unbridled energy market could allow another Enron debacle, but regulating the profits out of the industry limits the research and development the environment needs. The most important piece of recent legislation remains the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which granted tax incentives and loans for efficient energy production by large companies. The bill defined states’ roles in public and private energy interests as lightly regulating backers. It also stipulated that electric companies must procure all cost-effective energy savings according to the law. In RI, a new report by the RI Energy Efficiency Resource Management Council (EERMC) will outline technical and economic potential, “develop program designs and budgets […] and refine policy recommendations.” This will change the future of relationships among National Grid, the state government, city government and CAPs. Changes made by these institutions will affect architects, developers, construction workers, educational environmental markets, and individual homeowners. “What’s interesting is that people are looking at this more systematically. When we see the report, we can look at it and say now here’s how [energy in RI] looks, and then they can tell us how long efforts might take [to become sustainable],” said Farley.
The slow pace of RI’s government is alarming, especially considering the effects that lower energy bills or increased jobs could have had in 2009. However, Kempe explained that the state aims to weatherize 2,532 houses before the end of the year. As most citizens consi
stently name the economy their most important concern, the upcoming gubernatorial candidates will predictably address RI’s green economy. Beyond rhetoric, however, an entire system of people will need to be expanded and supported, from government administrators to educators to construction employees. The future of RI’s economy (including energy prices) remains unpredictable, but effective spending of this money shouldn’t be a mystery. Some have proposed that WAP charge a small fee for energy audits in order to incentivize follow-through so families will actually install the insulation and caulk up their heat leaks. Other suggestions have been to provide programs for middle-class families or landlords to alter their energy usage. For now, states have shown success in ramping up these programs using community-based marketing. In Bridgeport, CT, for example, the largest utility company temporarily hired underprivileged 18-23 year olds to market free energy audits door-to-door. The increase in weatherization was astounding. Maryli Secrest, who worked organizing community marketing efforts in Bridgeport, provided some perspective: “Its hard to get people to trust us, but once they see that there is money to save them up to 40 percent on their energy bill, they get pretty excited.” Alexandra Corrigan B’12 wanted to get weatherized, but thought it more appropriate to wait.