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Weatherization funding expected to provide early stimulus in the Bay Area

11 March 2009 2 Comments

By Karen Weise / Special to the 510 Report

To learn how weatherization works, CLICK TO LISTEN: [audio:http://510report.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/weatherization_0310.mp3]

Making magic with caulk, insulation and duct blasters, Contra Costa County weatherization specialist Brett Crowe can reduce a house’s energy waste by two-thirds in just half a day.

By late spring, thanks to $5 billion of stimulus funding, thousands of new weatherizers similar to Crowe will be sealing up low-income homes in the Bay Area and across the country. They will primarily come from the country’s 1.7 million unemployed construction workers, retrained as lean, greening machines.

These new weatherization hires will be some of the earliest manifestations of stimulus money in local communities. The East Bay will likely receive millions in additional funding, creating scores of new jobs.

Brett Crowe trains new hire Jesus Ruiz to track the energy leakage at an older home in Richmond.

Brett Crowe trains new hire Jesus Ruiz to track the energy leakage at an older home in Richmond.

For 32 years, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program worked in relative obscurity, but since first mentioning weatherization in a presidential debate, President Barack Obama has repeatedly put the program front and center. He has called it “exactly the kind of program we should be funding.”

Obama said he wants one million households to benefit.

Weatherization funds create jobs so quickly because they flow into the existing federal program, which already has established procedures for everything from allocation formulas to material selection. The quick transformation of funds into jobs means weatherization will provide one of the first opportunities to put Obama’s stimulus approach to the test.

“Basically, we’re just doing more of the same things we’ve always done,” said Robert Adams, director of weatherization services for the National Association for State and Community Services Programs (NASCSP), the network for agencies that administer programs like weatherization for low-income households.

While the benefits of the program sound nice, Leslie Paige, spokesperson for Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), said she does not think the government should even be in the weatherization business in the first place.

Weatherizers use a blower door to force air into a house and measure how much leaks out.

Weatherizers use a blower door to force air into a house and measure how much leaks out.

“The private sector could provide us this type of need if there’s demand for it in the economy,” she said. Paige would have preferred to see tax cuts to stimulate private sector growth.

County agencies said they expect to begin hiring as early as late April. That timeframe would be “really, really early” for stimulus funding that involves construction and hiring new workers, according to Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

NASCSP estimates that California will receive $192 million over two years, pumping about half a billion dollars into the state’s economy through jobs, suppliers, and other related spending.

While the Department of Energy has not yet released final numbers for each state’s take, local organizations have already begun planning based on past allocations. The head of Contra Costa County’s program, Michael Angelo Silva, anticipates receiving $3 million from the stimulus.

He has already calculated that he will need to hire a dozen more staff, purchase and supply five more vans, and double his warehouse space.

Silva said he should have no trouble finding qualified applicants. When he posted a job opening in January, he ran one classified ad for one day in one local paper. Fifty people responded, many with decades of residential building experience.

Once in force, the program will create nearly 47,000 direct jobs, and an additional 86,000 indirect jobs for suppliers, according to an analysis by the non-profit Economic Opportunities Studies. Around 5,000 of these jobs will be in California, where employment rolls were particularly hard hit by the cessation of new residential construction.

The local sheet workers union covering the northern California coast said more than 50 percent of its members are unemployed. “We obviously welcome any opportunity to secure work in that market,” said Rob Stoker, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County.

These jobs, however, will be tied to the two years of stimulus funding. CAGW’s Paige said she was concerned that the private sector would not be able to absorb these trained workers once the stimulus times out.

Crowe reads the gages and determines that this home leaks the equivalent of having a three-foot square hole permanently in the side of the house.

Crowe reads the gages and determines that this home leaks the equivalent of having a three-foot square hole permanently in the side of the house.

“I suspect if they throw $4, $6, $8 million at it, they will create jobs,” she said. “What kind of jobs, though? Will there be an entrepreneurial market for it in the future?”

Contra Costa’s Silva said because the funding is temporary, new hires will not be full-time county employees; they will be hired on a contract basis. He said cyclical funding has always been problematic for weatherization—they train employees only to have to let them go a year or two later. Silva said the employees leave with training certifications that make them desirable to the local private sector.

Unlike the scramble for other stimulus funds, weatherization money is doled out to states based on an orderly, predetermined formula. It takes into account the size of a state’s low-income population, its climatic conditions, and the financial burden that energy use places on its low-income households. The states, in turn, contract out the actual weatherization work to a network of governmental and nonprofit agencies in each county.

California divides up coverage of the entire state into a network of 63 individual organizations, including the Contra Costa Community Services Bureau, Spectrum Community Services in Alameda County, the Economic Opportunity Council of San Francisco, and Community Action Agency in Santa Clara County.

The stimulus legislation mandates that the federal government disperse funds to states within 30 days of signing the legislation. The state will need less than a month to execute new contracts and disperse funds to the 63 governmental and non-profit agencies that perform the weatherization work, according to Helga Lemke, director for external affairs with the California Department of Community Services and Development. That signed contract is all Contra Costa’s Silva needs to get going.

Contra Costa County's agency expects it will need to purchase and outfit five new vans because of stimulus fudning.

Contra Costa County's agency expects it will need to purchase and outfit five new vans because of stimulus fudning.

Silva’s organization sends out two-person teams to help low-income households fix leaky homes. Lower energy bills save homeowners an average of $413 a year—extra icing on the stimulus cake.

They do this by following a basic maxim. “We want to be heating the indoors,” said specialist Crowe. “We don’t want to be heating the outdoors.”

That is easy to say but surprisingly hard to do.

New weatherization hires will learn the newest greening techniques through a mix of on-the-job training and formal education at an existing network of training facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric’s Energy Training Center in Stockton provides the preparation for northern California. It teaches how to audit homes and determine how much energy escapes in order to locate and fix the leakage.

At an older home in Richmond, Crowe maneuvered his equipment around the living room filled with knick-knacks and pictures of grandkids. He set up a door-sized fan that blew air into the house to measure how much disappeared. Based on the electronic readings, this house leaked the energy equivalent of having a three-foot-square hole permanently in the wall.

Crowe got to work installing weather stripping, replacing the front door, and sealing off the kitchen fan. The ducts in this house were wrapped in asbestos, so Crowe could not do any work repairing potential duct leakage. Contra Costa Community Services Bureau outsources asbestos removal, but typically the services cost more than is allowed per house.

“It doesn’t take much,” said Contra Costa’s Silva. “You put a water heater in, and right there, there’s $2,400.”

But soon larger expenditures like furnace replacements and asbestos abatement will be possible since the stimulus package more than doubled the funding per house, up to $6,500.

NASCSP’s Adams said since California has a warm climate, most homes will not require additional funds. This means organizations in California will likely help proportionally more households than their counterparts in colder states.

While more households may benefit, Adams said weatherization programs aren’t new players in the ongoing drive to conserve energy. “These are things we’ve always been doing,” he said. “It’s nice to be finally recognized.” But with the recognition, comes pressure from Obama’s national spotlight.

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