Quick Questions: Robert Adams

Robert Adams is a leading national expert on the low income Weatherization Assistance Program and has more than 20 years experience in developing and managing residential construction and energy conservation programs.  For the last 12 years he has served as Director of Weatherization Services for the National Association for State Community Services Programs (NASCSP) in Washington, DC. He also serves that organization as Director of its Weatherization Assistance Program Technical Assistance Center, a DOE-sponsored technical resource center for state WAP offices.  Previously, he served as the Director of Maryland’s Weatherization Assistance Program and Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Program and possesses more than twenty years experience in residential construction and energy conservation. Starting in March, he will begin a new position with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO as the Program Manager for their Weatherization and Intergovernmental Program Office.

Q: The Bush Administration showed very little interest in Weatherization and last year even proposed to eliminate it.  The Obama Administration, on the other hand, has called for ramping up the program from 140,000 units per year to a million units – What changed?

Several things have coalesced to create a perfect storm for the Weatherization Program.  First, the Bush Administration didn’t “turn” on the WAP – it simply decided that research and development was their priority and the WAP was a market ready deployment program that didn’t warrant their attention any longer – or funding.  They believed the Program should continue but be moved somewhere where it could operate at its current level and help address the social aspects of energy conservation for low-income Americans.  They also viewed the WAP as unexciting and mundane.

The Obama Administration has taken over at a time when the economy needs a severe jolt to move the country into recovery.  The Transition team felt that the WAP, being a market ready deployment program, has great value, especially since jobs are created through investments in the WAP.  The more units the national network weatherizes, the more materials, goods and services are purchased and the more jobs are created to perform the work.  When you are looking to stimulate the economy and create jobs you look for programs that can accomplish both while providing a residual benefit of energy conservation, carbon reductions, and increased spendable income for the most needy families in the country.  It was a win-win-win and the Obama team took it.

Q: This is an unprecedented increase – how quickly can the current network of nonprofit agencies and training centers ramp up to increase the number of units?

That is a question with a lot of different answers.  To move a program that weatherizes 150,000 homes per year to 1,000,000 homes a year appears to be a 6-fold increase.  But the reality is that each state’s increase will vary, depending on the amount of money it had prior to the ramp up.  A state like Wisconsin that has more than $70 million in the WAP, may only see a doubling or tripling of production requirements with funding from the Stimulus bill.  Florida, however, may see a ten-fold increase because of the added funds from LIHEAP, and the change in national allocation formula that moves money toward the Southeast and Southwest when funding reaches a certain threshold.

Each of the 900 local agencies will need to develop an expansion plan to demonstrate how they will enact an expansion plan to meet the goals set by the funding they receive.  Within that strategic plan will be varying timeframes for training and field deployment for each discipline in the Program.  A field crew can be trained in two months to operate independently and provide excellent quality installations.  An energy auditor or quality control inspector may need more time while they learn about the various housing stock in their service territory and can tailor the service delivery to meet the individual needs of each home.  Managers, recordkeepers, and other support staff may need one to two months to learn their duties and be of usefulness to Program.  These training periods will be spread over a longer period of time so the expansion doesn’t stifle itself by having too much unskilled talent at one time.  The Program will see the initial impact of expansion in increased production capacity within the first 90 days after contracts and funds are available.  A pace of expansion will be established so that growth is controlled over the first 18 months and quality and effective production outcomes can be maintained.

Q: “Green jobs” are in the news as a complement to the new energy policies of the Obama administration.  Every state and local politician and policy maker are looking to create these “green jobs” as a foundation for the future growth of their communities.  What do you see as the job creation potential for Weatherization and what types of jobs would be created?  What is the skill set required?  Would these be primarily entry- level jobs?

Employment in the Weatherization Program is the definition of “green jobs.”  In fact, the Program was creating green jobs before it was “cool to be green.”  The best way to describe the Weatherization employment picture is that every job related to the Program results in a home being made more energy efficient.  The work of the Program reduces energy use that saves money for the family, conserves our precious energy commodity, and reduces the carbon footprint of each home served.

The types of jobs that will be created as a result of the Stimulus Bill will include crew leaders and crew members who install the materials and perform the retrofits in the home; furnace contractors who tune and repair older systems or replace them to create more efficient heat production; energy auditors who make the important decisions about what energy efficiency measure should be installed; and management and support personnel who control the operation and document its results.  These staff receive salaries far in excess of minimum wage and closely parallel living wage positions.  Nearly every staff receives benefits, leave and health care coverage.

The crew positions would be considered energy level, as would some of the office positions for finance and recordkeeping.   Several of the positions – like energy auditors, quality control inspectors, and program managers – are usually promotions from the ranks or hired from a pool of highly skilled and experienced candidates.

Q: What are your concerns about the ramp-up? Are there risks to local agencies if Congress ramps up Weatherization and then scales funding back to last year’s level?

There are several concerns about any rapid expansion.  Uncontrolled growth can lead to a reduction in overall program effectiveness or acceptance of inferior quality work for the sake of production numbers.  The network must remain committed to follow its history and accept only that work which meets or exceed our most stringent quality standards.  Growth must be controlled so that inexperienced crews aren’t sent into the field without proper oversight, thus creating the possibility of lower quality and effectiveness on its rate of return for the investment.

The rapid expansion of the Weatherization program followed by a quick and sever decline of funding will result in several things – none of them good.  First, the Program will add more than 32,000 new direct jobs to the labor force in the next two years.  These staff will be highly trained to perform their jobs.  If in the third year, Congress cut funding back to 2008 levels, these 32,000 staff would find themselves unemployed and eligible for the Program.

Our network will purchase vehicles, blower doors, furnace testing devices, high-pressure insulation machines, generators and millions of dollars worth of tools and equipment to outfit more than 14,000 new crews.  New warehousing will be secured and filled with materials for installation.  A sharp decline in funding at the end of the stimulus would idle this equipment, causing a huge wasted investment.

Finally, there are millions of families still eligible to receive these valuable services from the network.  A significant funding cut would extend the time the Program needs to reach these families.  At 1,000,000 homes a year, the Program can reach the eligible homes in 15 to 20 years.  Reducing funding to 2008 levels will change the time back to 90 to 100 years.

Do you think the increase in Weatherization can reduce the need for LIHEAP?

Nothing can replace or reduce the need for LIHEAP.  Weatherization and LIHEAP are two-sides of the same coin.  Low-income families need help with their energy costs to keep the utility bills manageable, reduce arrearages, and keep the service turned on through tough times.  The ability of LIHEAP to address these energy emergencies makes it a tremendous asset to those families who participate.

Weatherization provides a long-term reduction in the energy costs of the home and is a great partner with WAP in energy management for low-income families.  By combining LIHEAP and WAP benefits, most families can reduce their energy burden to 10 percent or below – not comparable but close to the 4 percent energy burden experienced by their middle and upper income counterparts.