Fast Company

More Than Energy Conservation

As part of my research for a book about green careers, I have been investigating the occupation Weatherization Installers and Technicians. I came upon an interesting paper by two researchers at the National Consumer Law Center that quantifies the societal benefits of weatherization in low-income housing.

One of the enlightened components of this year’s stimulus package is funding for weatherization. A federal program to help low-income earners weatherize their homes has actually been in existence since 1976, but it received only about $225 million of funding in 2008, weatherizing about 150,000 homes that year and employing about 8,000 workers in local agencies and contracting firms. (Another $770 million was added to the program from state money, energy company fees, and non-profit contributions.) By contrast, the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan allocates $5 billion to this program, to be spent over 18 months. This expanded program is expected to increase the number of homes upgraded to one million per year, employing seven times as many workers, including 3,000 energy auditors (in place of the 1,000 previously working in this program), 2,000 quality control inspectors, and about 14,000 weatherization technicians. The budget for 2010 reflects a continuing commitment to fund weatherization at that level.

Let’s look at some of the benefits of this program, apart from job creation. (There’s another weatherization program in the stimulus package aimed at government buildings, but for the present discussion I’m going to ignore that one, even though some of the benefits are shared by both programs.) By reducing consumption of energy for heating and cooling in low-income housing, weatherization reduces the generation of greenhouse gases from power plants, furnaces, and water heaters. In the long run, prevention of global warming will avoid many economic disruptions and even threats to national security.

Consider also that much of the fuel that does not get burned for heating and air conditioning--petroleum and even some of our natural gas supply--comes from foreign sources. By avoiding these expenses on energy, householders and landlords have more money to spend on American-made goods and services.

Much of the funding for the program goes toward paying the weatherization workers, who live in or near the community and spend much of their earnings there. Another portion of the funding for the program goes toward purchase of the insulating materials, many of which are manufactured in the United States.

Weatherization also maintains the value of residential buildings, reducing the amount of demolition and rebuilding that is needed and preserving the architectural character of communities. It even reduces homelessness. For some landlords, weatherization can mean the difference between a money-losing property that they abandon--disrupting the lives of the residents--and an income-producing property that they maintain.

Weatherization sometimes does more than save money and energy; sometimes it saves lives, because many heat-leaking old buildings also have other problems. A weatherization program conducted by a utilities company in Louisville in 1997 found that 23 percent of the households served had gas leaks, 26 percent had inadequate draft for heaters, and 16 percent had elevated levels of deadly carbon monoxide gas. Weatherization also contributes to health by making apartments less drafty in winter and less stiflingly hot in summer.

The weatherization program has received some criticism for the large amount of money going to warm-weather states, which in past funding formulas received very little weatherization money. Texas, for example, gets 55 times as much funding as it received last year. This change in the allocation formula was largely an unavoidable political move so that Sunbelt states would not feel discriminated against. However, inefficient air conditioning in a warm climate can waste as much energy as inefficient heating in a cold climate, and most of the other social benefits of the program will also be achieved in these southern states.

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