A year in tnhe life of a stimulus fund dollar goes something like this: the prospect of it travels from federal to state governments, through local branches of state agencies, to the local organization assigned to put them to use and then to the contractors who are to carry out the work.

But while the prospect of that dollar accomplishes much hypothetical progress, the actual dollar hasn’t budged. It wavers in bureaucratic purgatory while projected completion dates come and go.

Five billion such dollars are currently in limbo between federal and state energy agencies, holding up progress on what is arguably the federal government’s brightest stimulus idea: funding energy-efficient upgrades for low-income homes.

It’s quite simple: replacing old furnaces, installing insulation and sealing drafty windows—perhaps too simple for many people to get excited about. President Obama was told by one of his advisors that the concept is simply not sexy.

“Insulation is sexy stuff,” he retorted at a mid-December Home Depot appearance. “If you haven’t upgraded your home yet, it’s not just heat or cool air that’s escaping, it’s energy and money that you are wasting.”

And of course, money is irrefutably sexy.
NOT SO SHOVEL-READY

Weatherization on federal dollars means job creation, less energy use and, consequently, lowered dependence on foreign fuel. In Spokane, it means residents of older homes won’t spend hundreds each month on energy bills.

“What looks so trivial saves so much energy,” says state Department of Commerce regional manager Terry Lawhead, who has watched frustration build in Spokane and across the state as weatherization projects stall. “The reason the federal government has invested in this is that it has tremendous returns on efficiency.”

The funds are only now arriving at the agencies designated to put them to use. Last month, Governor Chris Gregoire criticized state Department of Commerce chief Rogers Weed for slow progress on the weatherization spending, telling him to “get it together.”

But the funds are hardly too little, too late, says David Hales of the Washington State University (WSU) Extension Energy Program. He argues that it’s worth the delay to ensure government money—taxpayer money—is used efficiently.

“There were a lot of expectations raised when we were first talking about the stimulus money,” says Hales. “People were talking about ‘shovel ready projects’—in reality, you just don’t spend a trillion dollars that fast. There’s a certain amount of due diligence that has to take place if you’re going to spend that kind of money with any kind of effectiveness.”

The vast majority of the money [$59.5 million] is going to low-income weatherization, says Hales. Another 14.5 million is allocated to fund eight pilot programs for non-low-income weatherization across the state. The WSU Extension Energy Program oversees the distribution of those eight programs.
SOUTH PERRY GETS WEATHERIZED

Low-income housing agencies like SNAP in Spokane have long been replacing old furnaces, sealing air leaks and installing insulation for low-income residents, but the trend has only recently caught on as energy costs and concerns for fuel consumption increase. The emerging weatherization industry is full of young companies exploring how to make energy efficiency retrofits economically feasible for middle-income residents.

SustainableWorks, a non-profit organization, is receiving the largest chunk of Washington State weatherization funds not allocated specifically to serve low-income residents—around $4 million. They’re working with the Spokane Alliance to coordinate a South Perry pilot project aided by stimulus funds.

“Some people describe us as a non-profit general contractor,” says SustainableWorks executive director Steve Gelb. They’ve gathered information for residents on utility rebates and worked with banks to offer attractive loan terms, and they’ll help clients manage all those details throughout the retrofit process.

The cost of weatherization services is subsidized by the stimulus funds, and utility rebates also help make the work affordable, says Gelb. By retrofitting a large group of homes at once, SustainableWorks can purchase materials at lower bulk pricing to save clients money.

While they wait on stimulus funding, the South Perry project’s coordinators have formed neighborhood teams to spread the word and get their neighbors on board. They’ve weatherized a handful of homes to iron out operational kinks and expect to begin energy audits and retrofits for the first 100 clients in South Perry by mid-January.
A BOOST FOR SNAP

”If we had made a wish, this would be it.” Chris Davis, SNAP Director of Housing Improvements, says the stimulus funds have put their agency on the map.

SNAP has been weatherizing homes for low-income residents for 25 years. Low-income families in Spokane pay 17% of their annual income on energy, says SNAP education coordinator Jim Blake.

They’ve already begun to see their chunk of stimulus funding, which has increased their resources from around $225,000 to $400,000 per month, says Davis.

That translates to being able to weatherize substantially more homes. “Before stimulus funding, we were at about 275 a year,” says Davis. “We’re aiming to do at least 500 a year for the next couple of years.”

Even renters can apply for home weatherization through SNAP; qualification is based on the residents’ income level.
THE AVISTA OPTION

For non-low-income folks who don’t live in the Perry District, Avista has a few stimulus-funded services in the works. Spokane County, the City of Spokane and the City of Spokane Valley are all drawing from their cut of the stimulus money to help fund Avista’s new Energy Efficiency Program.

Avista currently offers rebates to customers for up to 50% of the cost of their weatherization project. Upgrading insulation or windows, and installing a high-efficiency gas furnace or water tank apply.

The Energy Efficiency Program adds a new service—residential energy audits—in the first quarter of 2010, says project manager Joe Brabek. “The dollars [the cities have] committed will all go to offsetting the cost of the home energy audits.” Although the program is still being developed, Brabek estimates stimulus fund contributions will cut the cost of an energy audit as much as 50%.
Volunteer for SustainableWorks or get more information about the South Perry project at http://www.sustainableworks.com or call 877-975-2252.
To find out if you qualify for SNAP weatherization for low-income residents in Spokane County, visit http://www.snapwa.org or call 456-7111.
Learn about Avista’s weatherization rebates at http://www.everylittlebit.com.