Stimulus to fight utility bills

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

As Lewisburg Gas leaders plan to explain a federally-funded insulation program, Congress has been adopting an economic stimulus program with money for contractors to insulate homes so energy assistance payments go further.

The weatherization program administered locally by the South Central Human Resources Agency office on Old Columbia Road, "will help people save money," Gas Department spokesman Craig Blackwell said. "It will save energy and it will create jobs."

The department may soon have a meeting for property owners and renters who would be told about the insulation program, Blackwell said.

Meanwhile, church leaders are being invited to learn about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the Lewisburg Gas Department auditorium at 505 N. Ellington Parkway on Tuesday at 6 p.m. when the preachers will be told how they can help their parishioners.

However, paying heating bills for homes with poor insulation wastes federal funds, according to officials, including two leaders at the Fayetteville office of the Human Resources Agency that's administering LIHEAP and weatherization funds included in the economic stimulus proposal.

"There's $6.2 billion in the house bill for weatherization and $2.9 billion for it in the latest draft of the Senate bill," Kinsey Kiriakos, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Murfreesboro), said Monday, adding that change may come in a conference committee, but that the goal is to get the bill to President Obama's desk on Monday.

"When it comes to the stimulus package, Bart sees it as jobs, jobs, jobs," Kiriakos said with explanations on how weatherization will insulate homes against high heating bills as well as employ contractors who are hired for the weatherization jobs.

Emily Satterfield, director of the weatherization program at the South Central Human Resources Agency office in Fayetteville, said the agency can award work contracts to businesses that will install insulation and other weatherization devices.

The program has been in existence for years, but it could receive full funding through the economic stimulus package being adopted by Congress. That's also true of LIHEAP.

Blackwell noted this winter's weather and economic disaster are sending him customers he wouldn't normally see if it weren't for layoffs and work-week cutbacks.

"One guy, who usually puts $1 into the Volunteer Gas Program, came in and said he never thought he'd have to use the program" that exists so those who can afford to pay more can help those in need, Blackwell said.

Kiriakos said, "We're at a 22-year high in Tennessee as far as unemployment.

"Bart sees any initiatives as creating jobs as integral to the stimulus package," Gordon's aide said, and so the weatherization program "is something he wholeheartedly supports."

Satterfield said weatherization isn't only insulation.

It's important to identify where and how energy is being lost, so the agency conducts an energy audit that includes the use of a "blower door," she said.

"It's a piece of equipment that's set up at the door and it pressurizes a home and that allows us to identify where there's an energy loss," Satterfield said.

Eligibility for this program is the same as for LIHEAP, generally recognized as applicable for people who are eligible for food stamps and/or unemployment insurance.

Help with weatherization is applied with a set of priorities to first address the greatest losses of energy, she said. A household's "energy burden" would be determined based on factors including occupants who are elderly, handicapped and/or quite young.

"Health and safety are big issues," she said.

After energy audits are conducted, then the agency will call for bids from contractors who are approved for such work, she said. The best bidder would be selected and, after a bid is approved, a work order is issued with a schedule for completion and inspection.

"Most people think weatherization is at doors and windows," Satterfield said, but energy is lost in other places such as the casing around a window.

Weather stripping and door sweeps might be installed, she said. Heating and cooling systems may need a change of filters. The heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system may need adjustment. Insulation may be needed in the floors, attic and in the walls.

If two people living in a 1,000-square-foot house had a $700 energy bill during one month, it would be a good idea to have an energy audit, Satterfield said.

Hayes endorses that view just as much as insulation that reduces heating and cooling costs.

While that may seem logical, Hayes is working with funding from Congress that's distributed through a Tennessee government agency. They have different fiscal years.

"It appears there will be full funding for LIHEAP for next year for Fiscal Year 2010 that starts in October of '09, but our money goes with the state fiscal year, and it starts in July of '09," Hayes said, knowing that October is after July. "If the federal budget is in place and the state knows the money is coming... they will make it available to us, knowing that our application process takes time and payments wouldn't be made until October.

"So it should mean that we will have as much money as we have this year, which will be good, in my opinion, but that's given they reconcile it and keep it the way it was," Hayes said.

Kiriakos said Gordon's office anticipated the Senate would pass a bill Tuesday which would lead to appointment of conference committee members so the two versions of the stimulus package could be reconciled into one bill to be sent to the president.

Ironically, the Senate version of the stimulus package, as of Monday afternoon, included $40 billion for energy programs, including LIHEAP and weatherization and the total for energy programs was greater than what the house passed at $28.4 billion, Kiriakos said.

Other energy programs include spending on so-called smart construction, renewable energy sources, efficiency efforts, and fossil fuel resources.

Kiriakos on Monday remained cautious about the stimulus program's prospects in the Senate, explaining, "The balance is fragile" for the bill in the Senate. "If we maintain that, we anticipate it will be on the president's desk by Monday."