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With One Year of Stimulus Left, Low-Income Weatherization Industry Looks to Future

If you want to see stimulus dollars at work, take a visit to the Denver-based nonprofit Veterans Green Jobs. Two and a half years ago, the organization that trains veterans in things like home energy audits occupied just three office cubicles. Today, it’s situated in a 90,000 square-foot office with 85 full-time employees. 

“We have essentially about $9 million worth of contracts in weatherization that went from $0 to $9 million basically overnight,” says Bill Doe, CEO for Veterans Green Jobs. The organization holds two of 10 regional contracts providing weatherization to low-income homeowners.

Their mission will become a lot more challenging next March. That’s when federal funding for the program drops back to pre stimulus levels.

“We know there’s going to be some downsizing, but we hope it’s not a big drop off,” he says. “We hope to be able to manage it such that we can repurpose some of the assets and some of the people into other areas.”

In other words: trying to avoid staff layoffs.

For many green companies the likely cut in federal funding feels a lot like standing on the edge of a cliff. Just how sharp the drop off will be in April, May and June of 2012 is being determined right now by the U.S. Department of Energy. The office that funds low-income weatherization programs in all 50 states saw a $407 million dollar decrease. It now has to decide if that money will be taken away from weatherization or other programs it manages.

Doug Karl, who directs low-income weatherization for the state of Colorado, says he fully expects funding to go down, but believes it will be a soft landing for the state. That’s because other funding sources will continue to flow into low-income weatherization, like the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP. He estimates a post-stimulus budget between $12 and $20 million depending on federal funding.

Exploring Different Avenues

Whatever the amount, any drop in funding could be a setback for workers just getting started in the industry like Justin Heldenbrand. Thanks to the training from Veterans Green Jobs, he rates new residential construction for energy efficiency.

Heldenbrand served in the Army for four-and-a-half years, doing one tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. And he’s ambitious about the future.

“I definitely want to do more ratings, but I’m also looking forward to doing more audits,” he says.

Fortunately for Heldenbrand, he works for a company that’s looking for ways of branching out. EnergyLogicCEO Steve Byers partnered with Veterans Green Jobs last year to do low-income weatherization. The company is also building software and revamping its training programs.

“So we’re exploring a lot of different avenues and we’ll do our very best to minimize the number of jobs losses that happen,” he says.

Avoiding Radical Shifts

Meantime, Veterans Green Jobs’ Bill Doe acknowledges his organization has most of its eggs in one basket: low-income weatherization. But he hopes to change that. As the stimulus money is running out, he’s planning on transitioning workers into doing audits for middle- to high-income homes and light industrial businesses. But the market for that is slow right now.

“You want those cliffs to be more general slopes than absolute cliffs,” he says. “I think the idea is not to have these radical shifts that cause great distress amongst the workforce and our program areas.”

The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to release a more detailed federal funding breakdown of low-income weatherization money sometime next month. And that’s just the here and now. It’s anyone’s guess what cuts will look like for the next budget, which Congress will start debating after recess.

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