By Todd Shepherd | Colorado Watchdog
That was the revolutionary cry of Van Jones, the Obama administration’s former “green czar,” describing the president’s green-jobs initiative. And certainly, when the president budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for weatherizing homes via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it seemed as though there might indeed be an army of weatherizers storming your hometown soon.
But stimulus funds for weatherization weren’t just spent on caulk, weather-stripping, attic insulation, and the necessary labor to install them — items known as the “low-hanging fruit” of weatherization. In Colorado, stimulus funds helped more than 4,100 households get new refrigerators, at no cost to the recipient. Stimulus funds also replaced upwards of 3,900 water heaters, again, with no cost to the recipient.
Advocates say “weatherization” encompasses making a home more energy efficient by any means necessary. Critics say giving away free appliances is another expansion of the welfare state.
“People hear the term ‘weatherization’ and think of ways to make their home warmer or cooler,” said Denise Stepto with the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office. “This program defines weatherization as energy efficient, cost-saving measures in the energy retrofit of the home. Refrigerators are included in the energy audit part of reducing the electrical base load of a home because they are huge energy hogs. For every dollar invested in purchasing the appliance, the same is saved in money due to reduced energy usage.”
“This is nothing more than good old-fashioned vote buying,” said Jon Caldara, president of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute. (Full disclosure: He’s also my employer.) “I’ve got tons of Coors Light sitting in my garage, and the cold-activation strips haven’t turned blue yet, so where’s my government refrigerator? FDR wouldn’t have the cheek to put forward a scheme like this.”
Yet, the free refrigerators were not available to everyone; it’s likely Caldara did not meet income requirements. “The income qualification guidelines were determined by the (Department of Energy) and are set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Income verification is done in compliance with grant guidance using tax returns and/or pay stubs,” Stepto said.
The state’s weatherization program also offered thousands of rebates on new appliances, such as refrigerators, and clothes washers and dryers.
For comparison, Colorado Watchdog contacted other states to see how they spent weatherization funds that were specifically tied to the stimulus, and whether those funds were spent on appliances where the recipient put no money down or did not have to apply for a rebate.
(Comparing stimulus weatherization programs across states isn’t an apples-and-oranges problem, so much as Granny Smith and Red Delicious situation — still apples to apples, but because of slight differences in rules and/or time spent on the weatherization program from state to state, the comparison is not perfect, but very close.)
Delaware replaced 125 furnaces, but replaced no other item that could be considered an appliance.
Florida, despite a population roughly three and a half times Colorado’s, has replaced 5,800 refrigerators, just 1,700 more than the Centennial state. However, Florida also replaced nearly 15,000 heating and air-conditioning units, almost 5,000 window A/C units, and 6,700 water heaters.
Maine’s response was particularly instructive, noting that grant funding from ARRA “allows states to expand their regular Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) for residential buildings to include materials, benefits, and renewable and domestic energy technologies not covered by traditional WAP. The primary purpose is to determine if these new technologies generate savings to investment rations that would lead DOE to add them to the regular WAP.”
As a result, Maine reports installing 196 clothes washers, 87 tankless on-demand hot-water systems, and 37 solar hot-water systems, and installed no other types or kinds of appliances.
Iowa aggressively replaced water heaters and furnaces (3,259 and 3,948, respectively), but replaced far fewer refrigerators than Colorado (just over 1700).
New Mexico does not have data from the first year of ARRA funding, but from 2010-12 has replaced 849 refrigerators, 532 heaters, and 291 water heaters.
Nevada replaced 156 water heaters, and 1197 refrigerators since 2009. According to these audit documents obtained by Colorado Watchdog, several apartments in Nevada received virtually no weatherizing work that would require any “elbow grease” at all, but received only the installation of new appliances like refrigerators and other new technologies such as CFL light bulbs and low-flow showerheads.
One state’s reply stood out: The Commonwealth of Kentucky told us they could not calculate the number of refrigerator replacements without going through over 10,000 documents in multiple locations. They estimated the cost of fulfilling an open records request for the information at $75,000 dollars.