A hidden Obama success story: weatherization and energy efficiency

I sometimes hear people say they wish Barack Obama had created more New Deal style programs to create jobs like the WPA or CCC. It would be even better if he did it to build clean energy projects and deal with climate change.

I often think, that’s a great idea! I liked it even better the first time when it was called the federal stimulus bill! Then I try to remember not to be such a sarcastic jerk and politely point out that Obama funded a lot of projects like that when he decided to make energy the main focus of the stimulus bill. Many forget or never knew.

Part of the trouble is that Obama didn’t advertise stimulus jobs with catchy acronyms like CCC or WPA. Sure, there were signs at some public works projects but it wasn’t mandatory. The vast majority of jobs saved or created by stimulus funding didn’t arrive with a sign to let people know where the money came from.

For example, energy efficiency and weatherization funding. I learned at Climate Progress that, after getting $5 billion in the stimulus bill, the Weatherization Assistance Program has weatherized 1 million homes as of September 27, 2012. Woohoo!

The program is a triple win. It creates jobs, helps deal with climate change by lowering energy use, and lowers monthly utility bills. The post at Climate Progress points out that “state governments have been using a network of over 1,000 local agencies and more than 4,000 private contractors while employing an average of more than 12,000 workers per quarter to perform weatherization services across the country.”

The Weatherization Assistance Program not only created jobs desperately needed in the construction industry, it also provided a boost for American manufacturing and small businesses. More than 89 percent of the materials used in home retrofits are made right here in America. In all cases, except refrigerators (which are 62.3 percent domestically produced), retrofitting homes exceeded the national average for domestic share of all manufactured products used in the United States of 76.5 percent. Recovery Act funding went through these channels to stimulate local economies, employ thousands, and create demand for American-made supplies.

I’m sure workers in some of the factories making those materials know they won new orders because of the weatherization program. But, I wonder how many people are aware that a factory in their town was able to stay open or hire new employees because of orders generated by the program. Not many, I bet.

Consider how it was implemented in my community as a typical example. Federal money was given to the states and passed down to agencies with weatherization programs. It allowed Sangamon County to dramatically expand their program during a time of major budget cuts. I’ll be cynical and assume that the heavily Republican Sangamon County government probably operated by their usual buddy system and hired contractors they knew.

Neither Republican county leaders nor the friends they hire to do the work will go out of their way to credit Obama. In fact, many of them are the sort of people who nod their head when a politician says “government doesn’t create jobs” even if they’ve spent most of their lives working for the government.

One might read in the newspaper or on the county website that the program was expanded thanks to stimulus funds, but there’s nothing obvious to point that out when the work is being done. No one from the federal CCC or WPA came to work on their house. A contractor sent by the county did. It’s likely that many program participants are unaware or quickly forget about the connection to federal stimulus funding.

The $25 billion of energy efficiency spending in the stimulus bill included much more than weatherization. Using another local example, Springfield’s public utility did very well applying for stimulus funds, getting awards for a number of popular new and expanded programs.

The utility isn’t shy about saying they received funding from the awkwardly named American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But, there’s no particular reason to mention ARRA to every single person when work is being done and rebates are being distributed.

From a governing standpoint, it may have been more effective to distribute funding through existing agencies and non-profits rather than creating a new federal bureaucracy.

From a political standpoint, it was a huge failure not to brand the stimulus with a catchy name that would be mentioned every time a job is saved or created. That allows Republicans to call the stimulus a failure and continue repeating the delusion that government doesn’t create jobs. It also allows Green Party cynics to make their own delusional claim that Obama is no better than Bush on energy issues.

This is more important than Democrats taking credit for a hugely successful program that every single Republican in Congress voted against. Obama just made the largest investment in clean energy and efficiency projects in American history, by far. But, every expert I’ve read believes we must do much, much more.

There’s no path to dealing with climate change that doesn’t include dramatically reducing the amount of energy we waste. It’s important to brag about the success of these programs because they need to happen again in Obama’s second term.

© 2012 Willinois. This article is reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.