Federal Funds Pad Md. Weatherization Program


WASHINGTON (Feb. 27, 2009)—Tim Kenny, then 15, protested when his father made him spend a snowy day replacing windows and doors as part of the weatherization program the elder Kenny coordinated in Harford County.

But 20 years later Kenny runs his own weatherization company and, along with his father, is hailing the $5 billion boost the Department of Energy's weatherization program is receiving from the stimulus law that President Obama signed last week.

The funding will bring $63 million to Maryland over the next two years, more than 10 times, on average, what the state normally receives.

The increase is expected to underwrite energy efficiency repairs for thousands more homes for low-income people and the training and hiring of at least 200 people to do the work.

"It's been great, and whatever's driving it, I hope it continues," Kenny said of the new funding. "Conservation is the first avenue we need to go down."

It was the need to save on energy that led the federal government to create the weatherization program in 1976 following the 1970s energy crisis.

But the program had become "kind of an afterthought" until recently, said Bill Ariano, deputy director of the Community Development Administration for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I think there is a growing recognition ... that we need to start taking some very strong steps to decrease our energy usage," Ariano said. "We have a tendency to look at transmission lines and power plants and not look at the end user."

Those approved for the program receive an "audit" that includes visual inspections and the use of a special blower that checks for air loss. Trained technicians then come in to do a range of fixes that could include replacing lighting, adding insulation, replacing windows and doors and sealing ducts.

Low-income homeowners are hard-pressed to make those kinds of improvements on their own, Ariano said.

"When you come down to things like additional insulation, are you going to get the food or are you going to get the insulation?" he said.

The Department of Energy estimates that 5.6 million low-income families have had homes weatherized over the last 30 years, saving an average of 32 percent on their heating bills and more than $350 annually.

Maryland's program completed about 1,000 homes last year but received about 5,000 applications. With the stimulus funding, the $2.6 million it normally receives from DOE will swell to about $31.5 million, Ariano said, allowing the state to shrink waiting lists.

About $11 million of the new money is carved out for technical assistance and training. The housing department is working with other state agencies on a training curriculum that could be used at community colleges around the state.

"We really expect that by early summer, the training program will be in place," Ariano said.

McKinley Tull, housing director for the Salisbury-based SHORE UP!, said the nonprofit is already advertising openings to weatherize homes in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, and anticipates hiring 12 people.

"We normally have done 67 homes a year," Tull said, "but will increase to almost 300."

For Tracy Dyson, housing revitalization manager for Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee, the huge increase in funding "means a lot of work, which is good for us."

She expects that the organization, which weatherized 76 homes last year in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, will hire three more people to perform energy audits and to have more work for subcontractors.

"We definitely need to look into more people to process the applications and get some certification so that they're able to do the energy audits," Dyson said.

Tom Kenny, Tim Kenny's father, started Maryland Energy Conservation Inc. in 1995 after Harford County discontinued its weatherization program because of budget cuts. The nonprofit coordinates weatherizations for 12 counties.

Maryland Energy Conservation recently purchased a box truck and additional equipment in anticipation of the increased funding, Tom Kenny said. It expects to hire 16 additional people.

With binders full of pending applications, the organization could quadruple the number of houses it weatherizes, he said.

"It's an exciting time," he said. "It truly is."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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