Nationwide Recognition Highlights Importance of Weatherization to Low-Income Households, the Environment, and the Economy
It’s no secret that lower-income households spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on the basics. The lower your income, the greater the burden of paying for housing, food, transportation, and most other necessities of day-to-day living. Energy costs are no exception. Lower-income Wisconsinites may spend as much as 12% of their income on energy, compared to 3% for the average Wisconsin household. Often they are forced to cut back on food, medicine, or other necessities in order to pay their energy bills.
Each year, October 30th is recognized as Weatherization Day to call nationwide attention to the impact of energy costs on low-income households and to highlight the importance of weatherization assistance available to lower-income households through initiatives like the state’s weatherization program, a component of Wisconsin’s Home Energy Plus Program. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), weatherization services are available in each of the 50 states and the District Columbia, as well as through Native American tribes.
Since the program began in 1976, over 7 million homes nationwide have been weatherized through WAP. The program focuses on conservation and improving energy efficiency. Improvements the program helps pay for include replacing or repairing an inefficient furnace or air conditioner, adding insulation, and weatherstripping or replacing doors and windows. Residents can also have energy-consuming appliances like water heaters and refrigerators upgraded or replaced. Every project starts with a detailed energy audit using high-tech equipment to identify which improvements are needed that will provide the most efficient savings for the longest period of time at the lowest cost. Clients can even include new, energy-efficient light bulbs out of the deal.
Weatherization helps communities in a number of ways. In addition to reducing household energy costs, making homes more energy-efficient helps the environment by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. There are health impacts as well; using technology available through the program, workers can identify and remove threats like carbon monoxide, mold, and other causes of poor air quality.
The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program was initially launched in response to staggering increases in energy prices resulting from the oil crisis of 1973, with two of the first national models for the program operated by Wisconsin Community Action Agencies ADOVCAP and West CAP. At first, the program focused on simple, low-cost approaches to weatherization like caulking and putting plastic over windows in the winter. But by the 1980s, the focus had shifted to more permanent and cost-effective measures such as attic insulation and installation of storm doors and windows. All of these approaches were made more efficient in the 1990s with the adoption of high-tech home energy auditing techniques. The program received a big boost in 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act–the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in response to the Great Recession–injected $5 billion into WAP to weatherize nearly 600,000 homes.
The nationwide impact of WAP is profound. Weatherization efforts through the program reduce energy consumption by 35% in the typical low-income home, reducing energy demand nationally by the equivalent of over 24 million barrels of oil per year. That translates to a reduction in residential and power plant carbon dioxide emissions of 2.65 metric tons per year per home.
There are significant economic benefits as well. For every dollar invested in the program, households save $1.80 on energy bills – money that can then be spent on other necessities that help stoke the local economy and create jobs. Another $0.71 is returned to communities through reduced uncollectible utility bills (the cost of which is usually passed on to other customers); improved health and safety (less illness and fewer fires); and other factors. Weatherization also boosts property values.
Wisconsin has, for years, had one of the most successful weatherization programs in the nation. Weatherization services are delivered by a network of 21 provider agencies, the majority of which are Community Action Agencies. In calendar year 2014, 6,119 low-income housing units in Wisconsin were weatherized through the state program, which is comprised of federal WAP funds as well as substantial funding through Wisconsin’s innovative low-income public benefit program, one of the largest in the nation. The energy and dollars saved were substantial. An average of 175 therms per unit were saved, amounting to about $243 in savings per unit. In addition, an average of 1,005 kilowatt hours were saved in electricity, which equates to another $136 per unit saved. Combined, weatherization resulted in an average of $379 saved per unit in Wisconsin.
But all those numbers can’t capture the impact weatherization has on people’s lives the way personal stories can. The story of how the Western Dairyland EOC (Economic Opportunity Council) helped 70-year-old LaLonnie Karow of Mondovi is a great example. Ms. Karow lives in a 1972 mobile home in a rural area south of town. She couldn’t afford to use the electric baseboard heaters in the trailer, and her makeshift wood-burning stove in the living room wasn’t up to the task of keeping the entire house warm. As a result, the temperature inside never rose above 55 degrees during the winter. LaLonnie was forced to wear her winter coat and insulated boots all the time, and at night resorted to piles of sweaters and heavy blankets. “You have no idea how cold it was,” Karow is quoted as saying on the Western Dairyland EOC website. “The floor was just freezing and there were drafts all over this place.”
A county Elderly Benefits Specialist referred her to Western Dairyland EOC and she signed up for home energy and weatherization assistance. Staff at the Community Action Agency identified a space heater model that was safe for mobile homes and could adequately heat Karow’s trailer. A work crew then spent three days installing insulation in the floor and and attic, putting in new entry doors and storm windows, repairing the living room ceiling, insulating the water heater, and fitting the entire place with energy-efficient light bulbs. Karow can now make it through the coldest of winter nights in comfort.
Similar stories abound. For example, one ADVOCAP client wrote, “My insulation has improved my little house 65% and the winter cold is kept outside. I now have a nice warm home with all of the goodness you have provided me.” A satisfied CAP Services customer reported that “CAP Services has bent over backwards to be of assistance to us. They have made all the arrangements to have natural gas run up to our house from the road and to contact a reputable heating contractor to install a new energy-efficient furnace.”
A household is eligible for weatherization – as well as energy bill payment assistance – if their gross income is at or below 60% of the state median income ($3,446 per month for a family of three; $4,103 for a family of four). Priority is given to households with a high energy burden, an elderly or disabled member, or a child under 6. For more information see http://homeenergyplus.wi.gov/category.asp?linkcatid=819.
As we brace for another long, cold Wisconsin winter, let’s take a moment on October 30th to celebrate the good work Wisconsin’s Community Action network and its partner organizations are doing on the weatherization front, a critical component of the on-going commitment to find innovative ways to improve the lives and prospects for economic self-sufficiency of lower-income households in our communities.
Note: Detailed information referenced in this article can be found at http://wiscap.org/programs-services/programs/energy/, http://waptac.org/WAP-Basics.aspx and http://homeenergyplus.wi.gov/category.asp?linkcatid=881&linkid=120&locid=25.
For more information on the state weatherization program, feel free to contact your local Community Action Agency or WISCAP at 608.244.4422 or www.wiscap.org.