Do We Give People Energy or Help Them to Save It?

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on September 23, 2013
Do We Give People Energy or Help Them to Save It?

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was budgeted $2.5-billion by Congress in 2013. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was allowed $68-million. Does anyone see a contradiction here?

LIHEAP provides, primarily, emergency help for households who can’t afford to heat their homes in the winter or cool their homes in the summer. It saves the health and sometimes the lives of vulnerable people. It’s a great program. But it is designed to provide help during emergencies. It’s a bandage that stops the immediate suffering that vulnerable families often face in weather extremes. But wouldn’t it be better to greatly decrease the chances of that emergency occurring in the first place? That’s what WAP does. The program, along with occupant behavior changes, can create homes that are more energy efficient, safe, healthy, and affordable to live in for low-income families. It can reduce or remove the need for emergency assistance. It can even free up some funds to help cover other expenses such as food and health care. And we pay for it once every few decades. And it creates more jobs than writing checks to a utility.
I think LIHEAP and WAP are great programs. I know they work together in many instances and some LIHEAP funds do go for simple retrofit measures that save energy in the homes of low-income families. But why is there such an imbalance in funding between the two programs? Why does LIHEAP receive almost 37 times as much funding as WAP?
Could it be that Congress likes to help in an emergency and do something concrete that they can point to when up for re-election through LIHEAP, but aren’t interested in supporting something that is hard to see—energy efficiency and occupant health through WAP? Do utilities that have no incentive to help save energy pressure Congress to support LIHEAP because, for them, it is money in the bank that the utilities would otherwise not get? I don’t know. I’m just speculating here. 
What do you think? If you agree that it is a problem, how might we at least begin to fix it?

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