Little Rock For forty years, home weatherization has been one of those gold standard programs supposedly benefiting lower income families by tightening up their houses to the elements and thereby allowing them to save money on heating and electric bills. We have endorsed these programs, advocated them, and even participated in them over the years, but many long battles with energy companies in the early 1970s with ACORN always made me just a bit skeptical that if our people were really saving all of this money supposedly, why were the ever avaricious utility companies so adamantly endorsing and sometimes even funding such programs. Mainly, I would button my lip given how jaded organizing has undoubtedly made me.
Now the Energy Department has released a study touting the benefits and laying out the claims that weatherization is worth every penny and more that has been invested and even has long term health benefits. The study proving these claims in 4500 pages was done by the Energy Department’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Eduardo Porter one of the New York Times’ columnists looked at the independent evaluation of the report by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of California and he stumbled – or was led — into a controversy. Seems the profs had claimed perhaps the Energy Department’s emperor was not that well clothed, and the Oak Ridge report was an attempt to tell the profs in a mountain of paper to stuff it. Uh-oh, that made the profs actually get on the stick, hire a grad student grunt to go through the 4500 pages with a fine-toothed comb, and comeback with an even more detailed rebuttal of whether or not weatherization is a good investment or not, saves money for the poor or not, or even could be harming health rather than improving it. The bottom line from the profs is that they can’t tell whether weatherization is a great program or a big fat expensive hot mess.
The meat of the arguments fall on curious assumptions. The Oak Ridge team claimed weatherization saved 1.4 times its cost. The profs found that the “costs” did not include administration and training. They did not calculate for wear and tear and assumed energy efficiency would be constant for 20 years, and, brothers and sisters, take it from me, nothing, absolutely nothing, works as well day in, day out for 20 years as it did brand new. There were also weird assumptions on interest rates and the cost of money, but that’s too in-the-weeds for you and me. More troubling the non-energy benefits in health, safety, and productivity were also suspect. These benefits were not measured, nor were there control groups, but instead figures were essentially plugged in to make the case. For example better sleep was rated at $3142 per household, but not measured. There was also no control group to compare costs and then we come to health claims. Porter writes that
“The study concluded there were big health gains from reduced thermal stress, but …found no meaningful changes in the temperature of weatherized homes. The field study also found no significant changes in carbon monoxide. And it detected an increase in radon and formaldehyde levels. Yet the overall cost-benefit assessment reported benefits from decreased carbon monoxide poisoning and omitted the potential impact of higher concentrations of radon and formaldehyde.”
The horse Porter is riding is that you want to get outsiders to look at your programs, not your own employees. Fair enough.
But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against weatherization. I started out as a supportive skeptic. Now, I’m a full-on head scratching skeptic. To weatherize or not, that is the question for many families, but when it comes to government funding and the fight for the climate, every dollar counts, so which dollars and where should they go to include lower income families in the fight and the benefits?