The history of the Weatherization Assistance Program shows the vital role of government in nurturing the green economy.
By Francesca Rheannon
By the time the next president takes the oath of office, the U.S. will be well into the winter season. The record floods, fires and droughts of summer 2012 will be gone, although many thousands -- farmers, homeowners, and businesses -- will still be dealing with the aftermath. Record heat waves will be only memories.
But others will be facing another annual threat, struggling to stay warm in drafty homes as fuel prices continue their inexorable trend upward. That’s because a critical government program, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), is threatened. The program weatherizes homes of low-income families and elderly and provides some assistance for buying heating fuel. It typically results in slashing gas bills by 25 percent and electric bills by 42 percent.
The program not only keeps families warm, it often keeps them together.
This terrific video chronicling the history of the program tells one story about a single mother who was about to lose custody of her three children to the state because she couldn’t afford the fuel to keep her old, inefficient boiler going. Her local WAP program got hold of emergency funds to get her a new, efficient boiler -- and she got to keep her kids.
The WAP was the brainchild of the Carter Administration. Founded on a shoestring in 1975, it was part of the stimulus package of its day: the federal government’s response to the steep recession, high unemployment and high fuel prices of that time. The first jobs in the WAP came through the government-based CETA program (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.)
Widely derided by conservatives, the program actually worked, providing high-skilled training to thousands of low-income people, who were then able to get decent jobs. (I was one of the CETA trainees. Trained as a welder, I got a job in 1976 with the Bethlehem Steel Shipyards in Baltimore, Maryland -- one of a tiny cohort of women among a sea of guys. The job eventually led me to a career training workers on occupational safety and health -- but that’s another story.)
Fostering Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Green Building
Many of those early workers in the WAP -- put to work at first caulking the bejesus out of every crack and cranny of the draughty homes they were sent to tighten up -- are still in the business. Only now, they are proud owners of their own weatherization companies, experts in the field. Some became real innovators -- like the worker who designed a portable blower that became the standard for the industry.
Over the years since it was founded, the WAP can be credited with virtually creating the green building industry – and it’s a perfect example of the crucial role government plays in innovation (the Internet being another.) First, spurred by the market government created, the engineers and workers of the program invented new tools, like infrared scanners, and made other innovations in green building science. Just as important was government’s role on the retail demand side, creating the market to support the nascent green building industry.
Obama’s Stimulus And The WAP
But there’s so much more the program could have done, had it been adequately funded throughout the years. That became apparent – by contrast – during the two years of the much maligned and misunderstood Obama stimulus (or ARRA). The stimulus gave the WAP a hefty boost of $5 billion dollars.
Because of the stimulus, some 500,000 homes were weatherized ahead of schedule, thousands of good domestic (comprising more than 95 percent of the total) jobs were created in manufacturing and installation. Ninety percent of the jobs were provided by small businesses. The program trained unemployed veterans in Colorado and poor African-Americans in Mississippi (where it weatherized 1,400 homes – double the number contracted for).
And millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions will be kept out of the atmosphere, adding to the four million metric tons the WAP program has prevented over the 36 years it has been in existence. And decrease our dependence on foreign oil.
WAP Threatened, But Stimulus Has Lasting Legacy
But 40 million homes still need to be weatherized in the U.S.
We forget that it’s easy for the rich to be green. But for the poor and middle class, it’s often unaffordable. Forget fancy solar PV systems -- just being able to insulate a home is often out of reach. And that limits the market for the green building industry. It also keeps the market in niche status, unable to capture economies of scale because there isn’t enough demand.
The stimulus was a two-year program. Since it ended, the funds for the WAP have fallen off a cliff, from $210 million in 2010 to $68 million in 2012. That’s a drop in the bucket – not enough to keep the program going on a national basis.
But there is much in Obama’s “big government” stimulus that may last. Michael Grunwald writes in his book The New New Deal, that the stimulus pumped some $90 billion into green energy:
The scale is almost unimaginable. Secretary Chu’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which had a $1.2 billion budget, got a $16.4 billion infusion. New Jersey’s state energy program received a 9,500 percent funding increase. The Recovery Act will also triple the smart meters in homes, quadruple the hybrids in the federal fleet, and expand electric vehicle charging stations forty-fold. It’s creating an advanced battery industry almost entirely from scratch, increasing the U.S. share of global capacity from 1 percent when Obama took office to about 40 percent in 2015.
Yes, Solyndra failed, but thousands of other green stimulus investments haven’t.
The WAP was the granddaddy of them all. It shows what good government can do. Let’s hope it will stick around to do much, much more.