Community Energy Challenge Creates Jobs and Saves Energy in Whatcom County, Washigton
Energy Challenge creates jobs, saves energy in Whatcom County
Some building remodels over the past two years in Whatcom County have fit a pattern: more insulation, new windows, modern hot-water heaters and the occasional array of solar panels.
Hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses have participated in the Community Energy Challenge, a program that has been busy since it got off the ground in 2010 and is booked into September, when the program’s federal stimulus money runs out. The state Legislature earlier this year decided the program was successful enough to fund it through June 2013.
“The reason it was a priority in a tight budget year is, it just makes sense,” said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, whose district includes south Whatcom County and part of Bellingham.
“It creates jobs … and at the same time it’s saving people money at a time when they really need to save money,” Ranker said.
The Challenge’s various components – energy audits for buildings, consultations with owners on how to improve energy efficiency, rebates to help pay for the improvements, and specialized training for contractors – appear to be a recipe for success. But how successful has the program been so far in its two main goals, creating jobs and saving energy?
Ian Rae, co-owner of Chuckanut Builders, said his business was able to add three full-time employees who have stayed on since early 2011. The training in energy-efficiency remodeling will have long-term benefits, he added.
“I would almost characterize that as a bigger benefit than the direct work from the Community Energy Challenge,” Rae said. “It puts you ahead of the curve.”
Homeowners Melissa and John Schapiro, who live in a Bellingham house built in 1914 on South Forest Street, added insulation, replaced drafty single-pane windows and bought an efficient hot-water heater. The Energy Challenge paid 25 percent of their cost with grants from the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
The Schapiros are using their rebate to pay the interest on a loan from Banner Bank with a 1.25 percent rate, which is that low in part because 10 percent of the loan is government-backed.
“It was free money,” Melissa Schapiro said. “I really haven’t had any out-of-pocket expense yet.”
The work was completed before the November billing cycle.
“Instead of having a $200 gas bill, we had a $100 gas bill,” Schapiro said. “We’ve already saved $800 this winter.”
As part of the stimulus bill, the Challenge promised to create 35 full-time jobs by late 2012.
By the federal government’s own standards for tracking job creation, the program is accomplishing this better than the average stimulus program.
At the end of 2011, the Challenge had created 27 or 28 full-time jobs, said Alex Ramel, policy and energy manager for Sustainable Connections and a co-lead on the Challenge. By that time, $2.7 million of the $4 million in stimulus funds had been spent, or $100,000 for each job created.
According to data available at recovery.gov, the federal stimulus website, the entire stimulus payout through March – some $750 billion – created jobs at a rate of $130,000 each.
The Challenge might have had an advantage because it isn’t entirely publicly funded. Private individuals and companies are paying most of the bill, about $1.20 for every public dollar spent, Ramel said.
“That’s what I’m most proud of. Where there’s a public investment, there’s real private investment that’s going with it,” he said.
The Challenge met another of the federal government’s qualifications: The stimulus poured more than $35 billion directly into energy-efficiency efforts, including the Whatcom County program.
How much energy savings does $2.7 million buy? Ramel and Shawn Collins, Energy Challenge manager for the Opportunity Council, said almost 400 homes and more than 30 businesses have been remodeled so far, eliminating $250,000 a year in estimated energy costs.
Given these figures, a full return on the public’s investment, in the form of smaller utility bills, will take 11 years.
“Bottom line is that this program is accomplishing our stated goals,” Ramel said in an email. “The CEC has created construction industry jobs while reducing pollution, increasing our energy independence and keeping more money in people’s pockets and in the local economy.”
“We are very pleased that the state Legislature recognized those successes in passing the jobs package, and we are excited to keep doing this work,” Ramel said.
On top of the $1 million in original funding that remains, the Legislature added $2.7 million to extend the program into next year. Ranker, who wrote the first draft of the state Senate’s supplemental energy budget for 2012-13, said he intends to try during the next session to continue the program into 2015.
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