Don't Sweat the Trickle of Stimulus Funds

Don't Sweat the Trickle of Stimulus Funds

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee held a hearing today (available here) to discuss how Recovery Act funds are being spent, with an emphasis on the weatherization assistance program (WAP). The hearing is in response to a report from the Department of Energy Inspector General that found only 8 percent of the WAP funds had been spent as of last December. Some very negative media reports followed the report.

A little background -- WAP is run by state energy offices that weatherize (seal, caulk and insulate) low-income owned homes. This is a good investment by the feds, because low-income homeowners spend a larger percentage of their total income on energy and many of those homes’ energy bills are paid through a federal program called LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). The full cost of the improvements is covered under WAP, up to $6,500 per home, and the program was provided with $5 billion in the Recovery Act.

(Now, this is completely different from the president’s proposed Home Star program, which would provide a rebate to homeowners who invest in an energy efficiency retrofit that will include similar weatherization measures. Home Star incentives would cover a portion of the cost based on how much energy the retrofit saves.)

The media criticism has been a bit off the mark. After all, the Recovery Act funding hasn’t been squandered -- it just hasn’t been spent yet. While it makes sense to be disappointed in how long it has taken these programs to get up and running, there is certainly no reason to overreact and attack the program now that most of the growing pains are behind us.

Political opportunists have seized on the program’s difficulties to blame their favorite bogeymen -- Davis-Bacon living wage requirements, in-state hiring freezes, phantom environmental regulations, etc., but the real issue is much simpler:

You can’t attach a garden hose to a fire hydrant.

Of course it is going to be difficult to carry out $5 billion worth of weatherization work nationwide! There have to be skilled people available to do the work, government infrastructure to pay them, and enough people throughout the supply chain to keep the process moving. None of this will happen overnight when a program goes from $450 million to $5 billion!  In fact we didn’t expect it to: An April 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that only 1 percent of Recovery Act spending in FY 2009 would be on energy.

The least astute observers have even used this opportunity to criticize energy efficiency generally, but there is no basis for ignoring our fastest, cleanest and cheapest energy resource (efficiency) because of the difficulties of one program. I am sure those same folks would prefer to give that money to rich oil and gas companies, rather than use it to slash energy bills and stimulate the ailing construction industry anyway.

Certainly we wish more could have been done by now, but it is not the time to cut and run. Remember, 92 percent of the remaining funds will soon be used to retrofit homes, save energy and create jobs. Hopefully the public, the media and lawmakers will remember that jobs and energy savings are the goals, and they can’t be achieved if we quit when we just got the ball rolling.

Lane Burt is the manager of building energy policy in the Washington D.C. office of the
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The original version of this post was published at the NRDC blog Switchboard and is reprinted with permission.

Image ©
Serious Materials, use courtesy of Serious Materials and the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA) for Weatherization Assistance Program.