- Ryan Harry, Director, Weatherization Assistance Program
It has been an interesting year to say the least. We’re experiencing a pandemic that has killed a quarter million people in the US, civil discord and widespread protest, and a general election that appears to be the choice between two very different paths. Also add to these that much of the western half of the country is on fire, a point that is especially poignant here in Colorado. Compared to normal, now is a time where I find it more difficult to be grateful and easier to be anxious.
One blessing that I can easily count, however, is the job I get to do every day. I’m part of Colorado’s Weatherization Assistance Program --- we call it WAP (rhymes with tap) for short. WAP is a federally sponsored and funded program that provides energy efficiency and renewable energy services to families across the US. Each state has WAP activities. I’m proud to spend my time helping others and hopefully creating a better future for all through weatherization.
Weatherization is seldom mentioned in normal speech. But, WAP got some love during each presidential debate this month. During the first presidential debate, former vice president Joe Biden mentioned weatherization a few times. In the second presidential debate, Biden alluded to the fact that WAP may be responsible for weatherizing two million homes in the near future as part of his plan to fight climate change. To put that into context here in Colorado, we currently weatherize about 2,000 homes each year. If we are to weatherize two million homes during the next four years across the country, Colorado would be responsible for about 10,000 homes per year over four years. That is a significant increase at five times our current production level.
Looking at the surface, WAP is energy efficiency and energy bill savings. Insulation, LED lightbulbs, and furnaces. This stuff isn’t showy, and it’s typically not even seen. When was the last time, pandemic notwithstanding, you invited someone up to your attic to check out the insulation or down to your basement to look at your furnace? But there’s so much more to WAP than what immediately meets the eye. WAP sits at the exact intersection of two of the most important issues that face us today: climate change and inclusion.
The still going wildfire season in Colorado has brought a very real edge to climate change. The three largest wildfires in Colorado’s history happened this summer. The two largest are still burning now, in late October, and were in danger of connecting together. Climate change is so often an abstract concept to us humans: news stories of melting ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica, graphs showing temperatures over the past 30 years with undeniably hotter temperatures happening more recently. But here in Colorado, and across the west, climate change was not just a story. We got to fully experience our new hotter, drier climate as fires burned our beloved outdoor sanctuaries and the skies darkened with smoke and falling ash. It felt nothing short of apocalyptic.
The connection between WAP and climate change is easy to see. WAP’s goal is to reduce energy consumption within homes and, consequently, reduce the greenhouse gases being emitted. Those emissions primarily come from burning natural gas and generating electricity for use in homes. The installation of LED light bulbs, high efficiency furnaces, insulation, and rooftop solar arrays ultimately reduces the emissions of these greenhouse gasses. As a rule of thumb, every five homes weatherized essentially eliminates the energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions of an entire home.
WAP also has a role in creating the workforce that will support the so-called “green economy” going forward. The already robust training requirements of WAP provide the ability to train an entire workforce in the proper installation of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. WAP’s existing training infrastructure will play a critical role in creating the workforce capacity that will allow us to actually reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at a national scale.
Moving beyond climate change, what is not immediately apparent is WAP’s capability to foster inclusion across all US citizens. WAP’s focus is on income-qualified US residents, families with household incomes of less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Limit. This amounts to $52,400 for a family of four in 2020.
The cost of participating in the green economy is not trivial. Electric vehicles, energy efficiency home improvements, and rooftop solar arrays are expensive, and their payback in terms of hard currency are often marginal. For example, installing a solar array may pay back at 15 percent total--not per year--over 25 years. That kind of investment is difficult to commit to even if you have the cash to invest. It is much more difficult to commit to if you are already struggling to pay your bills.
Across the country, we have excluded our low-income residents from participating in many facets of our economy and our society. In America, it’s woven deep within our culture that you have to pay the entry fee in order to play. I believe that if we continue to require all to pay equal amounts, not just their equitable share, that our country will continue its division into those who can afford to pay and those who are left behind. This split happens in a variety of areas from education to healthcare to energy. If we’re serious about combating climate change, we cannot leave anyone behind.
WAP provides the opportunity for everyone to participate in the green economy, not just regardless of income, but because of it by inverting the income requirement. I believe this part of WAP is hidden well below the surface, but is absolutely critical. WAP serves as a force of equity by inviting everyone to play in the green energy space. If we do not bring everyone along to participate in the green economy, climate change mitigation will happen much more slowly than it needs to happen in order to keep us from going past the point of no return.
This inclusion piece that is buried deep in WAP’s core is the part I am most proud to be a part of. Every day across Colorado and the US organizations that perform WAP activities and their staff that install WAP technologies are hard at work. Every day these dedicated WAP staff members are working to fight climate change and make sure everyone gets to come along, even if they can’t afford to pay. I’m grateful to be a part of this.