An article by Kate Galbraith, The New York Times.
Wrapping up an elaborate energy audit, Knoxville is about to find out which of 99 city buildings are wasting the most energy. It hopes to begin repairs this summer, just in time to catch a tsunami of federal stimulus money earmarked for such unglamorous tasks as replacing light bulbs and fixing leaky insulation.
Knoxville’s timing is excellent. The city began the arduous work of cataloging deficiencies before the stimulus bill passed, and it is well along in planning its next steps. But experts worry that other beneficiaries, especially cities, are not ready to oversee the huge sums of energy-efficiency money about to come their way.
The money in the bill is enough to pay for a tremendous expansion of efficiency efforts across the country. But as with other parts of the stimulus package, the efficiency plan is creating tension between spending the money quickly, to get rapid economic stimulus, and spending it well, to do the most good over the long run.
“There’s enormous opportunity here for expansion of energy efficiency in this country,” said Lowell Ungar, the policy director for the Alliance to Save Energy, an advocacy group. “But there is certainly the potential for waste.”
President Obama signed the stimulus package into law on Feb. 17, hailing it as a shot of money big enough to help shake the economy from its lethargy while advancing many of his campaign priorities. Accelerating the country’s energy transition is at the top of his list. Many experts in the field agree with him that carefully chosen investments in efficiency will ultimately save more than they cost, by cutting energy bills.
At least $20 billion in the stimulus bill was earmarked for programs like improving the efficiency of government buildings and the homes of poor people, and trying to find better ways to save energy. That is far more, advocates say, than any bill in history. Within a few months, the money is likely to start landing in the bank accounts of thinly staffed state and city agencies that are accustomed to scraping for a dime here, a dollar there.
Utah expects that its state energy office will receive $40 million for energy efficiency, renewable energy and related programs — 123 times the size of the office’s current budget, said Jason Berry, who manages the four-person unit. He is about to go on a hiring spree.
The package contains $5 billion to weatherize low-income homes through the Department of Energy, enough to give the state programs that manage that work 10 to 30 times the money they received last year, said Christina Kielich, a department spokeswoman.
For advocates of this relatively obscure program, “it’s like they finally got to the other side of the desert and it’s pouring rain,” said Seth Kaplan, a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group.
The stimulus package also contains $4.5 billion to modernize federal buildings and $2.5 billion for research into energy efficiency and renewable energy. The biggest chunk, $6.3 billion, will be distributed by the Energy Department in grants to state and local governments, which can spend the money on things as diverse as thicker window panes for state capitols and rebates for homeowners who change their light bulbs.
Homes and commercial buildings account for 39 percent of national energy consumption. Experts say that improving their efficiency is not only cost-effective but also a good way to reduce the nation’s emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
But figuring out how to spend the money effectively — learning which university buildings need their doors caulked, for example, or which firehouse walls have insulation that is too thin — can involve time-consuming, tricky analysis by skilled technicians.
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