After what was a tenuous start of a small commercial and residential energy efficient retrofit program instigated by the state of Kansas to use federal stimulus money mandated for green collar job creation, this said program gained real traction. In fact, the math showed clearly that this program was on track to use most of the money set aside to renovate homes to be more energy efficient at little financial pain for the homeowner by the deadline set by the federal government of April 2012.
As fast as you can say "politics in the state of Kansas" this has all changed. Governor Brownback has deemed the program a failure by his credence alone and pulled all the money out of it and has now slated it for the production and shipment of ethanol.
In one final sweep, Gov. Brownback has taken a program that was up to spending over a million dollars a month in stimulus money - and creating jobs while doing so - and thrown it in the trash.
Throughout the last two years while being pummeled with rolling waves of bad economic news as well as the depressing setbacks for a progressive energy policy and climate legislation, there was still the bright corner of a growing new market of energy efficiency and green building science.
Indeed, I'll go a step further and say that watching the new green collar job movement gain momentum over the last several months in the Midwest has given me a growing sense of optimism that the idea of the American Dream had just experienced a temporary stumble rather than the terminal prognosis expressed by many in this country reporting on the wreckage wreaked by the privileged few. A rebirth of new small business was still possible and could remake America!
Here is how the program called Efficiency Kansas worked in the Sunflower State. Training facilities educated mostly out of work contractors on building science and home energy auditing. In turn, a homeowner who might be weary of high energy bills and an uncomfortable home could hire an auditor who then made recommendations on how to improve the efficiency and comfort - and health in many cases - of the home. An amount of money was then approved by the state energy office based on the simple rate of return on investment and the resident took out a no or low interest loan to pay for the work. In the best programs this loan was financed by the utility in a no-interest loan that was tied to the home, not the owner. The homeowner then hired insulation, HVAC and other types of specialty contractors to do the work. Then the homeowner, many who wouldn't be able to afford any of this work on their house on their own, could sit back and enjoy a comfortable, healthy and affordable house for a change.
This program wasn't perfect - it taxed us auditors with an overkill demand of paperwork - but it was clearly creating work in the home subcontracting industry which had slowed to a point of stagnation. It has also been a fresh blast of much needed air in the home renovation industry in that it has improved building standards and educated tradespeople on how a building uses energy, and the right and wrong way to insulate and improve the building envelope.
Admittedly the program was off to a slow start in the second half of 2010. However, over the last three months the program doubled from month to month for money being used from approximately $300k to then $660K to $1.3 million dollars in stimulus money spent - each month, not cumulative. One could argue that it wouldn't go through all 22 million dollars in the nine months before the deadline, but one could also project very easily that Efficiency Kansas would blow through most of it.
Our governor, however, made an executive decision that the program was an abject failure and pulled the remaining $22 million to be spent. Details on where it's going are sketchy, but the word is that it is being re-directed to an ethanol plant and a bio-mass plant in western Kansas, and an R & D project for bio-mass fuel stations. One of the probable beneficiaries that has a current operation in Wichita - Abengoa Bioenergy - is mostly owned in Spain and The Netherlands. A new project will add construction jobs, but they will be temporary. Efficiency Kansas was actually helping small business root themselves for a more permanent future once the April deadline came and went. Finally, ethanol fuel has questionable benefits. One can save more energy for less just by increasing fuel efficiency standards in engines.
There are hundreds of homeowners that have paid for audits and were waiting on bids. There are dozens and dozens of homeowners that submitted bids and are waiting on budget approval. Almost every last one of them, if this goes through, will be left with an informative report on what is wrong with their house, but nothing else.
This is not a done deal - it has to be approved by the US Dept of Energy. Auditors and contractors in the state are doing everything they can to raise awareness of this demoralizing decision.
Finally, I will end this blog with a couple of anecdotes. The first one entails a woman I'll call Anna who I just talked to Tueday desperate to finalize her paperwork so she could get in line for this potentially non-existent pot of money. She is on a fixed income in the inner city. She takes care of her ailing mother and as many of us across the nation are sweltering this summer, and temperatures in Kansas City reached 110 degrees Tuesday, she can't get her house's temperature below 90 with the AC running constantly. If she had her walls and attic insulated, her situation would change instantly. She could also use a new AC unit, but either way, it's not a tough or very expensive fix.
My second story is of another homeowner - let's call her Carrie - who's furnace tested for extremely high levels of carbon monoxide - it needs to be replaced, that is a fact. It is unsafe. This resident does not have the funds to do this herself and was counting on the loan; and now will most likely have to live with the fear that her furnace is trying to kill her. Better check those carbon monoxide detector batteries often, Carrie!
In summary, Kansas had a program that was working: it was creating jobs; it was promoting energy efficiency and conservation; it was improving building practices. It was working!
The green building industry and energy efficiency is alive and well in many parts of the country. It will survive in Kansas, but many people that were on track to a modest, but sustainable new career, will now have to look elsewhere. Many homeowners will just have to keep paying high energy bills and suffering through extreme weather while maybe even putting their health at risk.
This country's economic history was written by government subsidies and spending. The difference now is that most of our tax dollars are funneled into the endless loop of big corporate machines that can afford the big campaign donations and that can continue to put pressure on living wages, benefits and pride in the workplace.
I will not stand down. I will keeping fighting for the American Dream... just with less optimism than I felt before I heard this news.