TWIN FALLS — Improving energy efficiency in the homes of low-income families could save everybody money on their utility bills, but the future of a federal program that helps families with weatherization projects is in question.
South Central Community Action Partnership provides weatherization services to improve energy efficiency and reduce utility costs for low-income families, who spend 16.3% of their total annual income on energy versus 3.5% for other households, according to a 2014 study from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Low-income people and senior citizens spend a disproportionate share of their income on heating and electricity, said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson at an event with the partnership on Thursday to commemorate National Weatherization Day.
“The cheapest energy you can buy is the energy you don’t use,” he said.
Services provided by organizations like South Central Community Action Partnership is paid for through the federal government and utility companies.
The Department of Energy spent $254 million in 2019 on its Weatherization Assistance Program. From that, Idaho received nearly $2.3 million, with South Central Community Action Partnership receiving $252,055, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which oversees the program in the state.
Every dollar invested in WAP generates $1.72 in energy benefits for the 35,000 homes it serves annually, according to the National Association for State Community Service Programs. That report also shows every Department of Energy dollar spent on weatherization initiatives generates $2.78 in non-energy benefits through the 8,500 created jobs annually.
Simpson called the program “vitally important,” but President Donald Trump’s budget request eliminates the weatherization program entirely as part of $2 billion in cuts to the energy department’s efficiency programs.
Trump’s last three budget requests have proposed cutting Weatherization Assistance Program spending.
The budget recommendation from the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, on which Simpson is a ranking member, includes $290 million for the program.
The committee’s proposal “rejects the President’s drastic, short-sighted cuts,” wrote Chairwoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, in a statement.
A similar committee in the Senate also includes $303.5 million for the program in its budget recommendation.
Idaho utility companies supplement DOE’s spending with the money of their own. State utilities spent $2.8 million in 2017 on Weatherization Assistance Program, according to the National Association for State Community Service Programs.
Some money is also available through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Idaho received $5.4 million in 2017 for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps about six million low-income families pay their utility bills each year.
Trump’s budget proposal eliminates the $3.6 billion program.
It’s not unusual for the president to cut weatherization from his budget request, wrote Idaho health and welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr in a statement to the Times-News.
“We don’t see an immediate cause for concern at this time.”
South Central Community Action Partnership workers demonstrated methods used for weatherizing homes at Thursday’s event attended by Idaho business and government leaders.
They displayed the technology used to identify and fix pitfalls in energy efficiency. They checked appliances to make sure the worked properly and identified parts of the house structure with unwanted air “leakage” to help keep cold air out and warm air in.
The demonstration took place on an active project site at the Glenhaven Home, which helps transition women from the jail system back into society.
It’s truly a blessing for the home, said owner Kevin Sandau.
“Our home is safer now as a result of the work that was done today,” Sandau said. “The money that we’re going to save as a result of these upgrades is going to go a long way in ensuring that we can keep the doors at Glenhaven open for years to come.”
Projects completed by South Central Community Action Partnership typically return about 50% on investment in savings to the homeowner, said energy programs manager Jeremy Gunter. That means a project that costs $1,000 will provide about $1,500 in utility savings over the life of the additions.
Helping those families pay their bills effectively lowers the cost for everybody, Gunter said.
“Every participant is paying higher rates when people don’t pay their utility bills,” he said. ”By investing in lowering the overall cost, we are able to help decrease the rate of delinquency on utility bills.”
Gunter said higher energy efficiency also puts less demand on power companies and means less infrastructure is needed. That lowers utility rates and carbon emissions, he said.
In addition to energy efficiency upgrades, South Central Community Action Partnership workers demonstrated procedures for maintaining health and safety in homes.
Proper ventilation ensures quality air free of dangerous chemicals and diseases, said assistant crew lead Duel Newberry.
“We want to make sure they’re alright breathing the air we’re locking them into,” he said.
Those in weatherized homes saved $514 on average on out-of-pocket medical expenses and sick days, according to a report from NASCSP.
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