Energy-efficiency jobs are getting a jolt
Asa Foss spends his days fielding calls from construction workers who were bulldozed along with Maryland’s home-building market and now want to be part of a booming side-industry: making houses more energy-efficient.
The callers tell Foss that they’re desperate for work and that the classes he teaches can help them get it. He tells them there’s a two-year waiting list.
Foss runs Maryland Home Performance, a state-sponsored program based in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., that trains workers in re-engineering buildings to cut electricity use. The field -- and Foss’ voice mailbox -- got a steroid shot this year when President Obama and Congress set aside $20 billion for energy efficiency in the federal stimulus package.
The result is a case study in the challenges of flooding federal dollars into a sector that long survived on a trickle.
The average American family spends about $2,000 a year on home energy bills, the Energy Department reports. In most cases, a quarter to a third of the energy is wasted: Air leaks through windows, ducts and poor insulation; older appliances hog power. The Obama administration believes that presents a prime opportunity to create jobs and free up cash for homeowners.
The administration estimates the first wave of stimulus efficiency spending will employ 87,000 people -- including energy auditors who scour buildings for waste with high-tech sensors and weatherization contractors who install the often-simple upgrades that cut energy bills. In addition, the White House believes the program will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help combat climate change.
Critics question the job projections and warn some money could be siphoned off by scam artists or bureaucrats. They worry that there aren’t enough specific accountability measures attached to the money, or specifics on how the money will be targeted.
Nonetheless, states are racing to expand or create training programs that will help displaced workers launch careers in the efficiency field.
Maryland’s housing department plans to launch a program to train workers who will weatherize low-income homes. And Foss, whose program is run by the state energy department, says he needs more staff to help train applicants. “We have this year’s budget with next year’s expectations,” he said.
In the private sector, firms nationwide say they’re doubling or tripling workforces to upgrade millions of homes, businesses and government buildings. The reason? The stimulus spending and an accompanying batch of new tax breaks for efficiency.
Chief executives and analysts expect the demand to last, in part because of some strings attached to the stimulus money that push states to adopt ongoing efficiency incentives.
“It’s absolutely monstrous,” said John Berger, chief executive of Standard Renewable Energy, a Houston-based efficiency company with offices in four states, “both in terms of the opportunity for us and in terms of accomplishing what the objective was, which is use less energy.”
Many states have seen their efficiency funds bulge overnight by as much as 10 times. For example, California will receive $411 million in stimulus efficiency funds, Maryland is getting $113 million and Illinois will see nearly $350 million.
Yet veterans of the efficiency business say the rush of money and new contractors demand strict measures to ensure the upgrades work.
“You basically have the word ‘efficiency’ sprinkled throughout the stimulus package, but you don’t have actual specific targets, or a list of priorities,” said Edward Mazria, the founder of Architecture 2030, a nonprofit that works to improve energy efficiency in buildings.
State officials and the U.S. Department of Energy have promised strict transparency and spending controls. In a recent report, the department’s inspector general detailed the potential for waste, fraud and abuse in the efficiency programs and recommended ways to prevent them.
The department is rapidly hiring oversight staff and plans to audit homes that receive efficiency upgrades every few months. It is helping to establish 40 training centers nationwide and will require states to show detailed training and oversight plans before they receive the bulk of their funding.
“The level of scrutiny on this program is going to be extraordinary, as it should be,” vowed Matt Rogers, the Energy Department’s senior advisor for stimulus fund implementation. “If we are successful, people will understand we can create good jobs.”
Many entrepreneurs, lured into the market over the last few years by soaring energy prices, say they’re already hiring based on the promise of federal dollars.
Standard Renewable Energy -- which combines efficiency upgrades with solar-panel installations and other high-tech methods of reducing energy bills -- is set to jump from 250 staff and contract employees to at least 400, and possibly more, by year’s end.
Berger said he was inundated with resumes, largely from former construction workers, for jobs that started at $10 an hour for beginning installers up to six figures for managers.
Government officials and efficiency contractors say the most important fuel for the industry could be the sheer volume of work remaining once the stimulus funds run dry.
“The stimulus package will only be able to improve 2% to 3% of the existing housing stock in the United States,” predicted Peter Van Buren, president of TerraLogos Green Home Services in Baltimore. “We have a lot of work to do.”