Weatherization dollars seen as a boon for builders

Over the next three years, New Hampshire will receive more than $23 million in federal stimulus money designed to create jobs and increase energy conservation by funding a major boost in home weatherization projects.

The program is one piece of the job creation puzzle presented by the more than $900 million targeted for New Hampshire through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February.

The extra weatherization funds will be distributed to six community agencies that run the programs at the local level. Last year, almost 800 homes in the state were weatherized – a number, according to Andy Gray, the state weatherization program manager, that is expected to triple over the next two to three years.

The state had almost $3 million in the current fiscal year budget for weatherization projects.

“This is great, exciting stuff,” said Charlie Wolfe, weatherization manger for the Dover-based Strafford County Community Action Committee. “We’ve talked before what we could do if we had more money, and now we will have a chance to make a big difference.”

According to the Department of Energy, the low- and moderate-income participants in the Weatherization Assistance Program on average see a 32 percent reduction in heating bills – cutting a $2,000 annual heating bill, for example, to about $1,400.

According to Obama administration estimates, some 87,000 jobs nationally will be created by the $8 billion in stimulus funding for weatherization and energy-efficiency programs. But no one knows how many jobs will ultimately be created by the projects, which include insulation installation, sealing leaks and modernizing heating and air conditioning equipment.

Short- and long-term benefits

Ideally, some of the jobs could be created for private building contractors, many of whom have taken a beating in the recession.

Kyle Niemela, vice president of Builders Installed Products in Manchester, said he would welcome the subcontracting work. “I’ve been laying off workers and we have idle equipment,” he said.

The Home Builders and Remodelers Association of New Hampshire has been keeping a close eye on the stimulus package, which also included an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

“We are meeting with various groups to try to assist and put together a work plan,” said Kendall Buck, president of HBRANH. “It’s certainly going to help that 5,000 to 6,000 homes will be weatherized. This job creation tool will be beneficial in the short run, and possibly in the long with the training of energy auditors.”

What has caught the eye of contractors is the amount of money per project allowed by Energy Department regulations. It has more than doubled, from $3,055 to $6,500. The maximum income to be eligible for the program will increase from 185 percent of poverty level, or a $39,220 annual income for a four-person household, to 200 percent, or $42,400.

The volume of projects, Buck said, means “you’re going to see a wide variety of companies, from the smallest to the largest, involved.”

Niemela said that when the economy was growing, it was difficult to get involved heavily in weatherization because of the small project dollar amounts. “We helped out off and on over the year when things were slower,” he said.

Ryan Clouthier, who oversees the weatherization program for Southern New Hampshire Services in Manchester, said he expects the total number of weatherized homes in the Manchester and Rockingham County areas to rise from about 350 to more than 1,000.

“We are making an impact because of the work we are creating for our subcontractors and the impact on the houses, which will save energy for many years,” Clouthier said.

Clouthier has a waiting list of more than 1,500 for projects in the areas he serves. He has already posted jobs for some 14 energy auditors and has begun to talk to subcontractors.

Wolfe at the Strafford County Action Committee said his organization has its own six-person crew for weatherization projects — part of a federal program to train unemployed workers. To handle the expected increase in the number of projects, Wolfe said he may double his workforce, giving the employees the opportunity to gain experience in insulation installation and become certified energy auditors.

Gray said the program is a wise use of taxpayer dollars because of its track record.

“This is most definitely not just a one-time energy savings event,” Gray said. “Homeowners are going to benefit from this for years to come. Nationally, for every dollar invested, we see a $2.72 return benefit — $1.65 in energy savings and $1.07 returned to taxpayers by better housing quality, better health and safety, and in employment.”