Weatherization: A critical piece of the clean energy economy
When envisioning clean energy, visions of fields of solar panels and wind turbines likely come to mind. However, there is another sector of clean energy that is a silent powerhouse in Minnesota: energy efficiency. According to an article published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, saving energy is the most effective way to reduce energy consumption and costs. One big way to improve the energy efficiency of any home or business is through weatherization. By making improvements to an existing structure, money can be saved, waste minimized and overall greenhouse gas emissions drastically reduced.
What is weatherization?
Weatherization can mean replacing old doors and windows, adding insulation around pipes and in walls, upgrading HVAC systems, or repairing roof leaks. Some of these improvements are a one-time installation or repair, while others take the form of ongoing monitoring and maintenance. Depending on the needs of each building, weatherization can vary in scale and cost, but the ultimate goal remains the same: improve the protection of a building’s interior. According to the US Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program Factsheet, there are three primary areas of weatherization upgrades:
- Mechanical: These improvements are primarily interior-based, and address the various heating and cooling systems throughout the building. Pre-existing equipment is often repaired during this stage, but can also be replaced with newer and more energy efficient technology.
- Building shell: Insulation is the focus when examining a building’s shell. As leaks are discovered, windows and doors need to be repaired or replaced to enhance a building’s overall seal. A tighter seal allows the interior of a building to retain more heat in the winter, or cooler air in the summer, reducing the adjustments of thermostats and, ultimately, the amount of energy consumed.
- Electric and water: Upgrading to energy efficient lighting and plumbing fixtures not only improves energy efficiency, but can also allow for cosmetic improvements that increase a building’s comfortability as well.
Across Minnesota, weatherization is particularly important due to the state’s extreme winters and warming summers. Subzero temperatures increase thermostat temperatures during the winter months, and poorly insulated homes can cause these numbers, as well as general energy costs, to skyrocket. Weatherization improvements not only mitigate these costs and excess consumption, but also create well-paying jobs within the Minnesota clean energy industry.
How does weatherization impact me?
Just as weatherization upgrades vary from building to building, the economic benefits also vary across individuals. By protecting a home from extreme weather, for example, customers’ utility bills are directly impacted, as energy savings increase. Despite savings in energy usage and costs, large-scale home upgrades are often an intimidating prospect. The US Department of Energy has a resource page to help individuals take the first step in the weatherization process, which usually includes an energy audit via a professional energy assessment or a DIY audit.
In Minnesota, low-income households are eligible for free home energy upgrades through the Weatherization Assistance Program. The eligibility for this program is determined by a combination of energy audits and recent household incomes and, once a household is approved for the program, the amount and scale of weatherization upgrades is decided upon. Currently, more than 2,000 households benefit from the Weatherization Assistance Program in Minnesota each year. For some, weatherization improvements could decrease annual energy costs by 30 percent. This is an especially effective tool with the recent rising costs for electricity and heat, due to utility rate increases and extreme weather events.
Reaching the community
Along with economic savings, a properly weatherized home means increased comfortability of its residents. This comfort not only improves day-to-day moods within the household, but also adds to increased energy and often participation within the community. According to the Weatherization Assistance Program Factsheet, families with more livable homes have a reduced number of missed days of work as well as out-of-pocket medical expenses, and these benefits total to an average of more than $14,000 after completing the program.
Weatherization is also a big business opportunity. With a growing interest in weatherization, the opportunities for developers and business owners to model and install their various technologies becomes more widespread. A larger market opens the door for smaller and start-up businesses to showcase their technology, while simultaneously stimulating the development of newer, more efficient approaches to lowering energy consumption. In turn, these developments provide a space to increase the weatherization workforce, creating more clean jobs in the Minnesota economy.
The relevancy of weatherization today
Starting this year, states will have access to $550 billion in new spending through the federal Infrastructure Law. Of these funds, a brief published by the Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis Office (SCRFA) shares the prospective allocations for Minnesota. Four programs within the energy sector are expected to receive funding: the State Energy Program, the Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund, the Weatherization Assistance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
The Weatherization Assistance Program is set to receive the most funds out of these four programs, with an allocated $144.8 million. With these funds, the program will be able to support a larger group of individuals, increasing the overall accessibility of energy efficiency and lowering energy costs across the state. Similarly, LIHEAP will be able to provide a larger amount of assistance to low-income households in paying energy bills and performing weatherization upgrades, although their allocated funds have yet to be determined.
Working at a state level, the State Energy Program and the Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund are set to receive $10.1 million and $2 million, respectively, to support various energy efficiency and resource initiatives overseen by the Department of Commerce. Though these two programs are not working with households at an individual level, their efforts in the clean energy sector will continue to foster job growth and raise Minnesotan standards concerning economic savings and the implementation of weatherization.
As part of the current legislative session, the Minnesota Climate Action Caucus has proposed a Climate Action Plan that would bring $150 million to statewide weatherization programs, and an additional $30 million to support and grow the weatherization workforce. In 2017, according to a report published by Clean Energy Resource Teams, 26.7% of households that were eligible for energy assistance received help, while only 0.3% of households received weatherization assistance. As federal funding becomes more readily available, weatherization resources and processes will become more commonplace and alleviate these energy burdens that Minnesotans face. The funds will also stimulate job growth within the weatherization industry, creating opportunities for individuals and businesses across the state.