Let's put people to work insulating America's homes 

Solving Two Problems at Once

Dorothy Kelly had a problem. An elderly woman on a fixed income, she was spending $300 a month to heat and cool her 1,250-square-foot house on Peachtree Street. She got in touch with the city to see if she qualified for any help. That's how she came to the attention of the Sustainability Institute and the Energy Conservation Corps.

Kelly is not alone, of course. Each year hundreds of millions of dollars worth of energy are lost through the walls, windows, and roofs of American houses. But Kelly was luckier than most. The city Housing Department referred her to the Energy Conservation Corps, a partner program between the Sustainability Institute and AmeriCorps.

Funded by the cities of Charleston and North Charleston, with help from a federal grant, ECC has a goal of weatherizing 200 Charleston County houses by the end of 2011. Kelly was lucky. She got on the list to get her house retrofitted.

A couple of weeks ago, Conan Gibson and his ECC workers descended on Kelly's house and started the process, first with an energy audit, to see how much energy was being lost and where. They spent the next days caulking around windows, putting a combustion closet around the water heater, putting a ventilation tube through the roof of the utility room, blowing 25 bags of cellulose insulation into the attic, and making other improvements.

Last week Gibson walked me through the house, pointing out the work he and his crew had done. The weatherized house should be about 40 percent more efficient, with a corresponding reduction in energy cost, he told me.

And that brings me to his crew. ECC workers are all at-risk young adults, between the ages of 18 and 25, who have been selected for training for a potentially lucrative career. They undergo six months of on-the-job training under Gibson's supervision, for which they are paid $3,500. When they have finished the program, they are certified and ready to go to work — and there is plenty of work to be done. The question is: Who will pay them to do it?

In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the much-reviled "stimulus bill." Five billion dollars of that package was set aside to weatherize America's leaky homes.

The weatherization program is run by the states with a two-fold purpose: to help low-income Americans seal their homes and save money and to create jobs in this new industry. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that the average American home, properly weatherized, can save $350 in heating and cooling costs each year. Before the Recovery Act boosted weatherization efforts, fewer than 100,000 of the nation's 110 million homes had been properly insulated. The project at Kelly's house and the program that allowed her to get her home weatherized are fruits of the Recovery Act, in conjunction with local governments and private initiatives.

To celebrate this small victory for pragmatism and good sense, Mayor Joe Riley held a news conference recently in Kelly's front yard. It was a worthy event to be sure, but this program is budgeted to retrofit only 200 houses in Charleston. In truth, there are thousands of houses in this town that need the treatment and millions more across the country. And there are millions of people who need jobs — real jobs producing something useful for society.

It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see where this is going. In Charleston, Lowe's has recently launched a weatherization program and will likely hire some of the people who have been trained by ECC or similar programs. But we are talking about a few dozen people and a few dozen houses.

If ever there was a place for the federal government to jump in and get involved, this is it. In a perfect world, the free market would be ready, willing, and able to bring together this huge social need with this army of unemployed. Then we could stand back and watch these two problems solve one another. And in a perfect world, there would be no earthquakes or hurricanes, no crime or pollution, no Wall Street hucksters or child pornographers. In a perfect world, we would live in reason and light. There would be no need for government to protect us from natural and man-made disasters. But in this world, we need government. We need it every day, and we need it in even more ways as our world becomes even more complex and interconnected.

Fortunately, government was there for Dorothy Kelly and 199 other Charleston residents. Perhaps some day soon, all the houses in Charleston and in America will be weatherized. It's not too much to hope for, but it won't happen without government involvement.


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