Sealing Up Stimulus 

Energy efficiency projects hit homes, schools

The rain poured down last week as Brad Neuroth and his weatherization crew retrofitted a single-wide in a Nampa trailer park. Together, the five-man team installed storm windows, new insulation and a new furnace, rendering the unit vastly more energy efficient. The crew even depressurized the house to check for leaks.

"It's building science," explains Neuroth, describing the process the team uses. It takes Neuroth and his crew just a day to do a house and move on.

"Making these houses as energy efficient as possible is where it's at. The homeowner gets more bang for their buck," said Michael Figuerdo, a weatherization technician busy installing windows. Canyon County Organization on Aging, a private nonprofit group contracted through the Department of Health and Welfare, operates in seven Idaho counties and is using federal stimulus funding to make low-income housing as energy efficient as possible, with plans to retrofit up to 800 homes with the money. The idea is to create work for the crews while simultaneously helping Idahoans save money through energy efficiency. While the agency's weatherization program has been around since the 1970s, CCOA and five other agencies statewide will receive $30 million during the next two years under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for weatherization.

Recently, the Obama administration approved a $28 million state energy program for Idaho. This will support energy efficiency upgrades in public schools, some solar panels for schools and even the burgeoning LED manufacturing industry with a grant to Micron Technology, Inc., said Idaho Office of Energy Resources administrator Paul Kjellander. Additionally, $9.5 million was approved for competitive grants for energy efficiency upgrades to smaller cities and counties, methane treatment, and energy efficiency upgrades to government buildings. Now is also a good time to buy a new washer/dryer; $1.4 million in Energy Star rebates will soon be available. Energy updates in schools have already begun as well.

"If we could go into schools and just replace some old fluorescent lighting, that alone could save 30 percent in total energy consumption," said Kjellander. Renovations for schools take the form of scrutinizing the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for leaks, ensuring peak efficiency.

"Some school districts are faster than others to sign up. I believe there are 115 school districts in the state and right now there are only three that haven't signed on yet. When we look at the cost of that initial tuneup, the $15,000 investment will yield $13,000 annual savings. Schools can brag about it in newsletters to parents. People need some good news in down times. We see contractors back to work in some of these projects," said Kjellander.

The first of these projects, $18,000 for the Homedale School District, will pay back in energy savings in just over a year, Kjellander said.

"I think we were just lucky," said Homedale Superintendent Tim Rosandick. "We had indicated early on we were curious about the stimulus bill and how it would impact energy efficiency in schools. We were the pilot school district for the statewide tuneups of all the K-12 schools in the state so we were the first to develop the model of what they are going to do."

Aside from energy efficiency, stimulus dollars for K-12 education in Idaho are being used in two ways, according to Luci Willits, chief of staff at the Idaho Department of Education. $166.2 million of State Fiscal Stabilization Funds were allotted for the purpose of keeping jobs for teachers and employees of public schools. The money is just beginning to arrive. However, this money did come with a stipulation. The Idaho Department of Education had to agree to comply with a number of federal standards for Idaho schools, such as agreeing to keep state education funding at certain amounts, complying with credential requirements for teachers and agreeing to standardized assessments.

"The [U.S.] secretary of education was given $4 billion to use how they see fit," said Willits. Much of this money has ended up in competitive grant programs for which states can apply. For Idaho, the bulk of this money will be an estimated $45 million in the form of Title 1-A grants, a type of grant designed to improve academic achievement for disadvantaged students. This money can be used in flexible ways, such as training staff, acquiring new technology and creating after-school programs. Other grant money will also be available, $3 million in Title II-D grants for educational technology, $191,000 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance for homeless students, $55 million for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to strengthen education for the disabled and even $470,000 for school lunch equipment.

Stimulus money for higher education is arriving predominantly in the form of PELL grants, a type of financial aid for low-income students. Awarded to students, not states, these PELL grants aren't just intended for university-bound students--students attending institutions from hair design academies to theological seminaries are also eligible for the money.

"The stimulus increased the PELL grant money available for every eligible student that attends any school," said Kevin Jensen, director of financial aid at the College of Western Idaho. Stimulus funds added $17.1 billion dollars towards PELL grants, raising the maximum amount from $4,731 to $5,350.

"It's almost like a little kicker the way the PELL grant works. Now is a great time to go to school. The downside is the stimulus funding won't continue on forever unless Congress does something," said Jensen.

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