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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

Hilda Olivarria, 55, has lived in the same modest Tucson house for 32 years. Since she became disabled in 1994, there’s been little money for upkeep—even less since she started caring full time for three grandchildren five years ago. This spring she was hoping the ancient, rusting cooling unit on her roof could limp through one more searing Arizona summer.

Before the season even hit, however, things got worse. One day Olivarria caught the faint smell of rotten eggs in her house. A gas line had broken. The local utility shut off her gas, which fuels her furnace and hot water heater, and suggested a contractor to repair the line—for $1,000.

“A thousand dollars!” Olivarria says. “That’s my monthly income. There’s no way I could do it.”

But one recent morning, a crew was hard at work on Olivarria’s property. The workers fixed the gas line and connected it to a new energy-efficient furnace and water heater. They installed reflective window shades outside her living room to deflect the sun’s heat. Then they went on Olivarria’s roof and installed a new cooling unit.

And it all cost Olivarria nothing. The tab, which would likely exceed $5,000 commercially, was covered by a federal program that aims to help low-income and older Americans weatherize their homes.

Energy breaks

Across the country, thousands of homes like Olivarria’s are echoing with the sounds of repairs, thanks to dramatically expanded federal spending for weatherization assistance for home­owners and increased tax credits for those who improve their energy efficiency. The funding was included in the massive economic stimulus package—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—signed into law by President Obama last winter. The expanded programs offer an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to make needed home repairs with Uncle Sam’s help.

Stimulus funding bolsters the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program with $5 billion to be spent during the next one to three years. That’s many times the previous year’s funding for the program, which was started during the 1970s fuel crisis. At full capacity, the program will reduce fuel bills in 1 million homes a year, according to the DOE. It could also put an estimated 87,000 people to work fixing up older homes.

“These investments will reduce energy costs for those that need it most, while creating jobs, reducing pollution and moving the country toward energy independence,” says Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Who’s eligible

To put weatherization within reach of more low-income home­owners, the government raised the program’s eligibility limits—they had varied from state to state—to 200 percent of the poverty level. That’s income of $21,660 for an individual and $44,100 for a family of four (higher in Alaska and Hawaii). The federal guidelines allow states to give priority to people over 60, people with disabilities and families with children. Final eligibility is determined at the local level.

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