With heightened concern over expected high heating bills this winter, many have looked to government for solutions. While increased funding from Washington for LIHEAP and state support for energy efficiency are important, community groups and individuals can step in now to help.
It wouldn’t require a vote from Congress or proclamation from the governor to schedule a weatherization day or week or month, although those may help. Similar to the Habitat for Humanity model, groups of volunteers could be dispatched to weatherize the homes of seniors, low-income residents and others needing help. Someone with a little expertise could lead each group, ensuring that volunteers insulate windows, install weather stripping and do other work properly.
With the participation of service organizations, university groups and others, large groups could be quickly mobilized. Businesses could encourage employees to take a day off to join the weatherization effort.
The benefits would go beyond those whose homes are tightened. Weatherizing buildings means they will use less oil, gas or electricity for heat, up to 20 percent less. This will make federal and possibly state funds in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program go further, so more people can be helped or more assistance can be provided to those in the program. The improvements are also fairly permanent, reducing fuel consumption for years to come.
Dale McCormick, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, calls weatherization a “three-fer.” The homeowner uses less fuel so less money leaves Maine (and the U.S.) to foreign oil suppliers. Small, locally based contracting businesses that do the repairs or supply the materials make money. Third, the family keeps more of its money, which it can then spend on other goods and services, which circulates money through the area. Middle-income households spend about 6 percent of their earnings on heating, but low-income families spend 24 percent and the elderly spend 19 percent, Ms. McCormick said, so saving on heating bills can translate to substantial discretionary spending.
Another possible benefit is that reduced fuel consumption can decrease heating fuel prices for everyone.
In his short-term energy plan released last week, Gov. John Baldacci proposed $3 million in state spending on weatherization. Sen. Susan Collins has proposed a weatherization corps based on the Americorps model.
Both are good ideas, but volunteer groups don’t have to wait for votes in Augusta and Washington to take on projects that will help Mainers get through this and coming winters.