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Go Green at Home—With Uncle Sam’s Help

  • Energy inefficiency bleeds money.
  • Many homeowners can’t afford the fixes.
  • Can federal stimulus funds plug the holes?
Now May Be the Time to Go Green At Home

— Daniel Hennessy

“We like to focus on people on fixed incomes,” says Charlie Gohman, weatherization program manager for Arizona, reflecting a common approach. “If they’re elderly or disabled, and their energy burden is 30 percent of their income, they can be moved up the list.”

Olivarria estimates that she spends about 20 percent of her income on electricity and gas. With a fixed income of about $1,200 a month from her disability check, she fell well within eligibility limits.

When her gas line broke, she turned to the Tucson Urban League, a nonprofit organization that serves the low-income population. The League and nine other groups implement the federal weatherization program around Arizona.

The program’s expansion is well under way. By July, every state, even those in colder climes where the season for highest energy bills remains months away, had received at least an initial infusion of stimulus funding. New York, for example, got $157 million and expects to weatherize 45,000 homes over three years. Arizona, where energy efficiency means the biggest savings in the hot months, got in line for allocations early and received a first share of nearly $23 million in June. The state expects to weatherize 6,409 homes over three years.

The Tucson Urban League anticipates using some of that money to increase the number of homes it handles from 70 a year to 300, says Paul Harris, an administrator for the nonprofit. To meet the demand, the League has increased its work crew members from three to 12. Seven of the new workers had been unemployed. The crews have been handing out fliers in neighborhoods where they’re working—“trying to get the word out,” says Courtney McCoy, a crew supervisor.

McCoy supervised the crew sent to work on Olivarria’s house. The process starts with an energy audit, an assessment of how much energy a home consumes and evaluation of cost-effective measures for making the home more energy-efficient. In addition to installing Olivarria’s new appliances and shades, McCoy’s crew applied a heat-reflective coating to her roof and put in new register grills to help heat and cool air flow through the house.

Other energy-efficiency help

For those who don’t qualify for direct assistance, expanded tax credits in the Recovery Act provide an incentive to make repairs that can significantly cut utility bills. Previously, the credit for improvements such as installing energy-efficient windows, insulation or cooling systems was 10 percent of the cost. But the Recovery Act boosts that tax credit to 30 percent and triples the overall cap from $500 to $1,500. By the end of the year, there will be rebates to consumers who buy Energy Star certified high-efficiency appliances.

The payoff

As Olivarria waited eagerly at her kitchen table for McCoy’s crew to finish hooking up her new rooftop unit, she’d already noticed cooler comfort in her living room after the mesh sunshades were installed. The changes can make a big difference in utility costs, on average saving hundreds of dollars per year, according to the DOE.

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