New Opportunities uses energy stimulus dollars to warm homes and create jobs

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network

President Obama has an ambitious plan: to funnel more than 5 billion dollars into states to create jobs, conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Connecticut has received a bundle of these stimulus funds. More than $150 Million so far. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen is tracking some of those energy-related dollars around the state.

In Waterbury a pile discarded windows and doors are leaning against a two-family home in Waterbury. Inside a crew of weatherization workers are replacing them.

“I just put this window in here and I pre-caulked it so it seals from the outside.”

59 year old Donald Shabazz, a carpenter, is helping low-income residents, like the person who lives here, stay warm and save money.

“I’m going to caulk it again before I put the trim back on so it is double sealed. That way they have no air flow coming in here and it helps with the energy.”

Conserving energy is one goal for the stimulus dollars. Employing unemployed people is another. Until Shabazz landed this job he hadn’t had steady work in two years./p>

“I feel elated. The fact that you can pay bills you have to feel elated.”

Nearly $64 Million federal dollars are going to four community action agencies with experience weatherizing homes in poor communities. Including New Opportunities Inc In Waterbury, which hired Donald Shabazz.

Stimulus dollars are not only being spent on weatherization, but also renewable energy.

The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund has been awarded $20 million to pay for new programs to fund solar hot water in homes and geothermal. And it expands the solar electricity and fuel cell programs. Lise Dondy, President of the Fund, says this will also help workers expand into new areas.

“So a plumber who is used to doing standard plumbing can now be trained to do solar thermal so I think that’s very important. It’s establishing new market opportunities for existing trades.”

Dondy says this increase in renewable energy will replace fossil fuels, a little bit.

“Not to a significant extent, but again it is establishing a foothold into that area, which we can then expand upon as a state.”

All of the stimulus money comes with huge requirements. Recipients have to track and report the number of jobs created, (and in some cases) the amount of energy saved and whether federal wage laws are followed, every month, on a tight schedule. Dondy says it adds up to piles of paper work.

“I would describe them as a headache, an Excedrin headache!”

But Dondy says it’s well worth it, especially in this economy. She estimates the $20 million will generate the equivalent of 1300 jobs; some full time with benefits, some independent contracting. But Raymond Wilson of the state’s energy office says job growth may take a while.

It’s slow. I’ll be honest with you. The expectation is high. The growth in jobs is going to be slow. Businesses are generally still reluctant to bring on new hires because of concern about the longevity of recovery.”

Wilson says the cost of health benefits is another barrier to job growth.

His office is funneling $9.6 Million to 142 cities and towns for energy efficiency. The bigger cities get a total of 15 Million direct from the federal government. Projects include energy retrofits on municipal buildings, recycling, and bikeways. Wilson calls it a once in a blue moon opportunity.

“It has been about 20 to almost 30 years since we’ve seen a wave of federal funding to support energy efficiency programs and projects anywhere near this kind of funding.”

At New Opportunities Inc in Waterbury the budget for weatherization has more than doubled. Joanne Balashak, who directs the program, says that’s good news for the low-income families who have been clambering to have their homes weatherized.

“We weren’t able to do it. Now at least with this additional money we will be able to weatherize this humongous amount of homes, and we’re happy to do.”

Still, it’s a big step up for this nonprofit which is expected to weatherize more homes at a much faster pace.

“It’s a huge change. I used to be able to sleep nights. Now I don’t sleep anymore because my head is always rolling. My brain is always thinking ‘Well how are we going to do this? How are we going to do that? What report is due today, tomorrow?’ It really has engulfed my life.”

So far New Opportunities Inc. has hired 10 unemployed people to do weatherization. They earn between $20,000 and $30,000 a year plus benefits. Contractors, who will be hired by New Opportunities, are expected to hire even more weatherization workers, all previously unemployed.

Back outside the work site 42 year old Lynden Johnson, who started doing weatherization in September, says he’s learned new job skills.

“Oh I learned a lot. I know how to put up windows. I know how to put up a weather strip, door sweep, caulking, a lot of stuff.”

Before this father of four landed this job he had been unemployed for eight months.

“It was tough. It was tough. It’s tough out there. No job out there, but thank God this thing came around, you know what I mean?”

In Joanne Balashak’s office there’s a sign hanging above a poster of Martin Luther King Junior. It says: “Wish it, Dream it, Do it.” Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine this level of funding to help people in her community.

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