Problems seen in energy stimulus programs


State energy officials need to do a better job of ensuring that minority and low-income workers are included in weatherization and other stimulus projects, one lawmaker argues.

During a hearing on the status of energy programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) said state officials are not doing enough to ensure that the stimulus funds are benefiting workers from economically disadvantaged communities.

Anderson’s comments followed a presentation by Janet Streff, State Energy Office manager for the Office of Energy Security, to a joint meeting of the House Energy Finance and Policy Division and the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division.

Anderson expressed frustration that Streff and other officials had no information on how many minority and low-income workers were being hired, and also what amount of energy savings were being achieved. Anderson co-sponsored a 2009 state law that requires the office to report the information to the Legislature.

“People are watching, and we need to be able to document that we are getting good results for this money,” she said.

Streff responded that although she had not collected the information for the hearing, it would be available in January, when a report is due to the Legislature on ARRA energy projects. As to the energy savings being achieved by weatherization projects, OES Operations Supervisor Jeremy de Fiebre said the information was not yet available.

Stimulus projects stalled by regulations

During her presentation, Streff said OES staff have been working to spend stimulus money as quickly as possible, but have been held up by federal labor and environmental regulations. As an example, Streff said weatherization projects were delayed while the federal government drafted wage requirements for workers, which were finally issued in September.

Perhaps even more challenging, de Fiebre said federal law requires a review of the potential environmental impact of many projects slated to be funded by stimulus money, potentially delaying some projects by several months. In addition, he said renovations on any building built more than 50 years ago first require a review by state historic preservations officials, who are too short staffed to handle all the proposed projects in a timely manner.

Despite the holdups, Streff said many of the initial problems are nearly resolved. She said a little more than $5 million has been distributed so far this year; however, nearly $28 million worth of projects are planned for November.

Appliance rebate program detailed

Streff updated legislators on the upcoming appliance rebate program authorized by the stimulus – the so-called “Cash for Clunkers” for appliances program.

Although Minnesota’s share of rebate funds will be available in November, Streff said the rebate program will not be available to consumers until March 2010.  She said the current plan is to limit rebates to refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves and clothes washers that are Energy Star-qualified, and to limit one rebate per household. The office expects to distribute between 25,000 and 30,000 rebates, she said.

More information on the appliance rebate program and other stimulus-related energy programs can be found on the OES Web site.