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Federal weatherization funds still largely unspent

WASHINGTON D.C. — Weatherization funds were supposed to be one of the shining examples of successful stimulus funding, with promises of quick-spending cash that would boost the economy immediately.

WASHINGTON D.C. — Weatherization funds were supposed to be one of the shining examples of successful stimulus funding, with promises of quick-spending cash that would boost the economy immediately. Perhaps most importantly, the reduced utility bills would help keep people in their homes during what was accurately forecast to be a long and brutal winter.

But with the end of that winter just weeks away, only 8 percent of the $4.73 billion money allocated for weatherization has been spent so far, according to a damning Inspector General’s report released today. In Minnesota, that means that 1,423 have been weatherized – though 16,858 should have been.

“The job creation impact of what was considered to be one of the Department’s most ‘shovel ready’ projects has not materialized,” wrote Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman. “And, modest income home residents have not enjoyed the significant reductions in energy consumption and improved living conditions promised as part of the massive Recovery Act weatherization effort.”

So just why has that money been delayed?

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“The results of our review confirmed that as straight forward as the program may have seemed, and despite the best efforts of the [Department of Energy], any program with so many moving parts was extraordinarily difficult to synchronize. In this case, program execution depended on the ability of the Federal government, (multiple agencies, in fact) state government, grant sub-recipients and weatherization contractors, working within the existing Federal and state regulatory guidelines, to respond to a rapid and overwhelming increase in funding. Further, anticipated stimulus impact was affected by certain conditions and events clearly outside of Departmental control including state budget difficulties; availability of trained and experienced program staff; and, meaningful changes in regulatory requirements.”

Update: I talked with Nicole Garrison-Sprenger, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Commerce (which administers the weatherization grants). She noted that the money can be used through March of 2012, and that there’s “no reason why we can’t meet that deadline.” And in addition to the figures cited by the Inspector General, another 2,300 homes were in progress of getting weatherized as of mid-January.

Garrison-Sprenger said her department “typically gets about $9 million a year, so to get $132 million (in stimulus funds), we had to do some ramping up on our end, so we spent the better part of the summer getting the staff and infrastructure in place to do that.”

“We’re moving as quickly as we can,” she said. “Now that we’ve got everything in place, it’s exponential from here.”

It must also be very confusing for state Commerce officials. On the one hand, the national eight-percent weatherization rate (Minnesota’s was 8.44 percent) was called “alarming” by the Inspector General. However, just last month state officials received an award from the Department of Energy for being among the top five states in the number of homes weatherized.

The Department of Energy also released a statement from Cathy Zoi, the department’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy:

“We appreciate the work of the Inspector General as we continue to work with states to ramp up their programs. During January, states significantly increased their spending and the number of homes weatherized under the Recovery Act, but additional progress is needed to help states reach their targets and deliver the benefits of energy efficiency to families across the country.  As a result of the Department’s efforts to address challenges in the program’s implementation — including resolving Davis-Bacon wage determinations in all 50 states and clarifying how states should handle historic preservation — states weatherized more than 125,000 homes by the end of 2009 and are on pace to do at least 250,000 homes this year.  In fact, since September 2009, we have tripled the pace of Recovery Act-funded home weatherization.

Still, our goal is to improve further.  Vice President Biden and Secretary Chu have been discussing additional steps that can be taken to continue strengthening the program, and agreed this morning to move forward with additional new measures that should increase our pace of weatherization.  This will require additional reporting, the redeployment of  personnel from other agencies to expand federal project oversight, and direct follow up by Secretary Chu and senior Department officials with states that are lagging behind.  The Department will remain focused on providing each of the states and local agencies with the resources they need to quickly and effectively implement this program,”