E&E News: Sequester Could Kill Weatherization Program - DOE Official

— Originally published in E&E News – written by Nick Juliano, E&E reporter —

Looming across-the-board spending cuts could doom a Department of Energy program that provides grants to install new windows, upgrade insulation and perform other energy efficiency projects for low-income homeowners, a top official said yesterday.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program had its funding slashed dramatically in fiscal 2012 because it still had money left over from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But that low funding level was extended into this year with the continuing resolution, and the program faces the potential loss of another 6 percent or so of its funding from the looming “sequester,” said David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“We’re trying to work with our appropriators, [the Office of Management and Budget] and others to make sure that we figure out a way to keep that program funded at a sustainable level, because if you go below a critical mass, you start destroying the network,” Danielson told reporters yesterday after speaking at a renewable energy conference.

The program distributes grants to states, which use the funds for weatherization training programs and to hire contractors to perform retrofits for low-income families.

Over the last several years, the program has typically received between $210 million and $240 million in annual appropriations. But the fiscal 2012 spending bill dropped its funding to $68 million because a substantial amount of money from the Recovery Act remained unspent, said Brad Penney, general counsel for the nonprofit Advocates for The Other America. The 2009 stimulus measure provided $5 billion for the program and has resulted in more than 1 million homes being weatherized since then, Penney said.

When Congress was unable to complete its work on fiscal 2012 appropriations last year, the $68 million funding level carried over in the continuing resolution that is keeping the government operating through the end of next month. And the looming sequester, which kicks in March 1 unless Congress acts to delay it, will further trim the program’s budget, along with almost every other defense and domestic account in the federal budget.

“If that is the case, we’re not going to continue to have a weatherization program,” Penney said.
The fear is that some states would shut down their weatherization offices altogether if the program’s funding faces further cuts.

“There’s a minimum amount of money to sustain that office and that capability, and then you can incrementally fund more weatherization retrofits by adding more contractors or having them work more hours,” EERE’s Danielson said. “But if you kill the core of the network, then it’s actually damaging to the ability — you can’t just start again next year.”

Home weatherization saves the average low-income family between $200 and $400 a year on its utility bills, a significant savings as the families aided by the program can spend between 15 and 40 percent of their income to heat and cool their homes, compared to 3 to 4 percent for middle-class families, Penney said. He also said that the program creates jobs because contractors that receive weatherization training enter the retrofit industry to upgrade homes for middle- and upper-class homeowners, as well.

Penney said his group and others have had three meetings at the White House so far this year and are urging the Office of Management and Budget to formally declare that the program’s fiscal 2012 funding level is a “budget anomaly” to clear the way for Congress to return it to its normal levels.

A group of 37 senators wrote a letter to President Obama last year asking that he request at least $210 million for the program in his fiscal 2014 budget request.

“We recognize the challenges on the discretionary budget for FY14, and believe in the prioritization of programs that support jobs, assist with the nation’s economic recovery, and help meet important goals like improving efficiency and reducing pollution,” the senators wrote. “In this spirit, we believe that investments in programs like WAP … that reduce costs for individuals, businesses, and society, and create greater economic competitiveness for our nation, should be maintained.