Improve home, boost economy

Buying a new furnace and installing new windows will not only improve your home’s energy efficiency, but will also create jobs.

That’s what the government promises with part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package: restarting the economy by putting people to work as they restructure the nation’s energy systems.

The idea is that by switching to cleaner and more efficient modes of power and heating, the nation can eventually free itself of oil dependence and improve the environment. And government and experts say this transfer can happen only with a work force.

About 87,000 Americans will find work through $8 billion in two energy-efficiency programs, the White House said last week. No estimates were given for New Hampshire, but state officials and experts predict the programs will in fact employ people.

“Any money we get coming in from the federal government is going to be helping New Hampshire,” said Amy Schmidt, a Saint Anselm College associate professor of economics. “The federal government feels it’s a national priority to reduce energy consumption, and that’s how they decided to target funds. And they need to hire people to do that.”

Last week, the White House touted the two energy programs’ benefits to this state. More than $23 million of stimulus money will be allocated to New Hampshire for weatherizing homes for low-income residents and more than $25 million to a state program that, among other things, will probably give consumers rebates for energy-saving improvements.

The weatherization program aims to better insulate homes and thus cut energy use and costs. Weatherization includes adding more insulation, sealing leaks, and modernizing heating and air conditioning equipment, the government said.

The program will give up to $6,500 per home in energy-efficiency upgrades, and will be available for families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level – basically, about $44,000 a year for a family of four.

The state Office of Energy and Planning anticipates receiving the weatherization funds by April, and will then disperse a portion of the money to six nonprofit community-action agencies, said Andy Gray, the OEP’s weatherization program manager.

Using applications from the state fuel-assistance program, the agencies will determine which homes qualify, audit them and conduct final inspections. Auditing alone will create about 30 jobs at the agencies, Gray said.

On the installation end, the state already has – through the agencies and as subcontractors – 18 crews that each have two to three workers, Gray said. The state could ultimately double the number of crews, potentially putting 108 people to work, he said. And construction workers in need of employment are “definitely a possibility,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in an e-mail that construction workers, electricians, insulation and HVAC technicians – as well as other technical professionals – will be needed for weatherization projects.

That’s good news for area businesses, but several of them say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach before counting on more work.

Chick Beaulieu, a Nashua remodeling business, hopes that a combination of tax-return season and stimulus money will prompt homeowners to think about roofing and windows, sales representative Steven Beaulieu said.

“We’re hoping that people do spend the money, which in turn would create jobs,” he said.

Chris Hartson, of Lamco Systems in Tyngsborough, Mass., said he wasn’t sure if the stimulus package has yet to create jobs in his line of work. But a government tax credit of 30 percent on high-efficiency furnaces already shows that if customers want to buy a heating unit, they will spend extra money on a more efficient one if they have the cash, he said.

Schmidt, the Saint Anselm professor, said the program makes sense. Low-income homeowners otherwise wouldn’t have the money to weatherize, and landlords wouldn’t have the incentive, she said. But the program will create a short-term energy benefit while putting people to work, she said.

The other program promoted by the White House – the state energy program – is broader in scope than the weatherization effort.

In an e-mail, the DOE gave a generalized description of how the state program will work. Among the goals DOE listed was saving homeowners, businesses and schools money through energy efficiency; developing alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass; establishing policies to adopt clean energy technologies; and adopting and enforcing clean-energy building codes.

On the state economic stimulus Web site, the OEP says the DOE has yet to set guidelines for grants through the state program, but predicts it will follow past criteria.

That would include establishing energy-efficiency standards for public buildings, promoting car pools and public transportation, permitting right turns at red lights, and ensuring effective coordination between local, state and federal energy programs.

Funding from the stimulus package is only the first step of President Obama’s clean-energy mission. His first annual budget also focuses on development of wind, solar and other alternative forms of energy, and he vows to make the effort a cornerstone of his presidency.

Schmidt pointed to how the stimulus money is intended only to be a stopgap solution to the faltering economy, and that at some point, the government will lower funding as private industry gains steam.

But the stimulus could help in the short term, Schmidt said. She didn’t have firm calculations, but she figures that the energy end of the stimulus package would employ about 1,000 people.