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Doug Grout: Common-sense clean energy solution is within reach

Minnesota has weatherized 9% of eligible homes since 2005. That's too slow. It’s past time to make expanding this important service a priority.

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Doug Grout
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Drafty windows, poorly insulated walls and attics, and aging furnaces make cold winters colder. Worse still, they threaten the health and the pocketbooks of many households in our area.

Minnesota’s Weatherization Assistance Program can help address these issues, but a lack of trained workers and a backlist of needed renovations stand between our residents and benefits from an $80 million grant from the federal government. Time is running out to seize this opportunity.

Weatherization is the process of improving a building’s energy efficiency through insulation upgrades, reducing air leakage and repairing or replacing inefficient boilers, water heaters and furnaces.

For most Minnesotans, the percentage of their income spent on energy is only 2%. But in Greater Minnesota, 1 in 3 counties have average energy burdens over 5% and some households spend up to 30% of their income on energy. On average, a weatherization investment of less than $7,669 can save households up to 40% on their annual energy costs.

With Minnesota’s cold winters and humid summers, buildings consume over 40% of energy used in our state. Minnesota’s energy demand currently outpaces production, forcing us to import energy from elsewhere. Weatherization is critical to helping shrink that gap, increasing our state’s energy independence and helping to cushion economic shocks from increasingly volatile global energy markets.

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The state’s Weatherization Assistance Program helps Minnesotans afford these crucial investments. But while an estimated 489,354 homes statewide — 12,148 in Olmsted County alone — are eligible for this assistance, Minnesota has weatherized 9% of eligible homes since 2005. It is estimated it will take nearly three centuries to weatherize every home in Minnesota at this rate. It’s past time to make expanding this important service a priority.

Thankfully, the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) awarded Minnesota $80 million for weatherization assistance. This money would prioritize helping low-income elderly and disabled Minnesotans, and families with children weatherize their homes. But the benefits would also extend far beyond individual homes. The Department of Energy estimates that every dollar spent on weatherization returns $2.78 in non-energy benefits to the community. And two-thirds of weatherization assistance goes to communities in Greater Minnesota.

Two major barriers stand between that money and our communities:

The first is workforce. Minnesota has a significant shortage of workers trained in weatherization. Training in home energy auditing, installing insulation and furnace and boiler repairs can lead to fulfilling careers in this fast-growing building trades sector. Demand for this work is only going to increase, so we need to act now and use a nominal portion of our state’s $9+ billion surplus to invest in workforce training for these well-paying jobs in a growing sector, while also helping our neighbors save energy costs and improve living conditions.

The second barrier to weatherization comes back to deferred maintenance. Strict federal rules prevent weatherization expenditures on homes in need of more basic repairs. Up to half of homes otherwise eligible for weatherization in Minnesota must be deferred due to issues ranging from outdated wiring and inaccessible crawl spaces to failing roofs and asbestos-laden insulation. Setting aside resources to make these basic repairs is critical to not only achieving 100% weatherization in our state, but also to maintaining our already short supply of affordable housing.

Weatherization is a common-sense clean energy solution, and its humble character hides massive benefits for our state. With the state legislature preparing to adjourn on May 23 there’s limited time to make the needed investments for our state to capitalize on this grant. Time is running out: contact your State Senator and request they make these necessary investments to support weatherization efforts across our state.

Doug Grout is executive director of the Southeast Minnesota Community Action Council (SEMCAC).

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