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N.C. scrambling to catch up on weatherization goals

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A year after the launch of a massive weatherization program, North Carolina has failed to retrofit even a third of the original number of homes earmarked for the alterations and underestimated the cost to upgrade them.

Now North Carolina energy leaders say they are ramping up the pace and, with the federal government's approval, they have halved the number of homes they plan to serve.

Seth Effron, communications director for the state energy office, said leaders miscalculated the cost of weatherizing homes when they submitted plans to secure the stimulus funding.

The state has spent just $32 million of the $131.9 million it received for the program as part of the federal Recovery Act. North Carolina has until March 2012 to use the money.

"In order to be more effective in what they did, they did a re-examination of what needed to be done typically for a home," Effron says. "There's not going to be less work being done; there's going to be more work being done per home."

But that means far fewer homes will be weatherized.

Instead of retrofitting 22,203 homes at an average of $4,000 per unit, North Carolina has set a new goal of 12,250 homes for $6,000 to $8,000 apiece.

As of June, the most recent data available at the U.S. Energy Office, 4,117 N.C. homes, about a third of the adjusted goal, have been weatherized as part of the stimulus initiative.

To qualify for the free program, homeowners must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line (see "What's up with weatherization?" at right). Local agencies assess the energy efficiency of the homes, usually improving insulation, updating heating and cooling systems or adding digital thermostats and low-flow showerheads.

The program has helped reduce energy bills by about a third for weatherized homes and is creating the green jobs that President Barack Obama touted. However, nationwide the program has only generated 15 percent of the 87,000 positions promised.

In February, North Carolina was highlighted in a federal report as an example of a state struggling to start the program, citing "difficulties in finalizing its plan when the administration of the program was transferred."

Only two of the top 10 grant recipients, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, had completed more than 2 percent of their goal at the close of 2009, the report found. N.C. had weatherized just 197 homes, a mere 0.89 percent of the March 2012 benchmark.

Jen Stutsman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy, stresses that North Carolina was one of many states that was slow to take advantage of the program. She adds that the program has recently experienced "just an incredible growth."

"What we've seen in spring and into summer is the program in North Carolina and across the country has really hit its stride," she says, noting that the federal program had to transition from a $250 million annual operation to doling out $5 billion in a three-year span.

Still, more than a year after Congress passed the Recovery Act, local and state leaders say the program wasn't as "shovel ready" as lawmakers originally thought, and it is just now beginning to catch up.

During the federal grant application period last year, the state Legislature voted to reorganize several departments. The move temporarily delayed implementation of the weatherization program while offices reshuffled under the state bureaucracy. The Energy Office moved from the Department of Administration to the Department of Commerce. The Weatherization Assistance Program moved from the Department of Health and Human Services into the Energy Office.

That forced North Carolina to submit amended plans, including a new budget now tied to the Department of Commerce. Despite receiving federal approval for the original plan in June 2009, the state had to wait until November to have its amendments OK'd and to receive funding.

"Some of the gears that make bureaucracies run properly changed," Effron says. "All of that took time. It's not the kind of thing where somebody was at fault per se. That was just some of the policy and procedural hurdles that had to be accomplished."

State energy policymakers get half of the stimulus funding up front, and the remaining allocation arrives when the state reaches 30 percent of its goal and meets several transparency and inspection requirements. North Carolina has met the benchmark and is submitting the paperwork for the additional funding, Stutsman says.

The state office has withheld $15 million for training, equipment and administrative costs, and plans to distribute the remaining funds to the 30 agencies charged with completing the work.

(Separately, UNC-Charlotte researchers received $2 million in stimulus funds earlier this month to weatherize 800 homes across the state and study how the improvements withstand different climates in the mountains, coast and Piedmont.)

Each community action group will get 10 percent up front and another 40 percent once the necessary contracts are in place. The Orange-Chatham group performs the work itself. In Wake they are aided by five approved contractors.

Doug Dixon is the weatherization director for one of 30 statewide agencies, the Joint Orange-Chatham Community Action. He confirmed there was a delay in receiving stimulus funds.

"At first it was hurry up and wait, because it was like they wanted everybody to get people and equipment and get everybody trained and this and that, and there was just no money to do it with," says Dixon, whose office now also serves Anson and Richmond counties.

Despite the initial delay, Dixon says there's a waiting list that he wants to expand in all four counties under his jurisdiction. He says workers need to weatherize 18 homes a month to meet the goal; they are averaging 21 a month to catch up and will serve about 1,000 homes by 2012.

Wake County's goal is 1,010 homes; Durham, where Operation Breakthrough runs the program, has a goal of 913.

The program has trained 13,000 workers in green building, including 392 in North Carolina, Stutsman says.

"Before the stimulus money came, we had one team, one crew—that was the whole department. So we're more than tripled in size," says Gerry Massey, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act coordinator for Wake's Resources for Seniors, which, despite its name, serves homeowners of all ages.

She says at least a dozen new jobs have been created in her office, plus the contractors who will employ additional workers.

Before the stimulus, they served 120 homes a year. Now they work on 45 homes a month, and the waiting list is four months' long.

"I know we're over halfway to our goal, we are on course to meet our projections," she says. "The money is there, it's available to us. Once it got going, that wasn't a problem."

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