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A new Connecticut program is expected to help cut energy bills and improve living conditions for low-income residents throughout the state.
The Statewide Weatherization Barrier Remediation Program, overseen by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, will pay for the cleanup of mold, asbestos and other health and safety barriers that can prevent homeowners from pursuing weatherization projects.
Leticia Colon De Mejias, owner of an energy efficiency contracting company and executive director of the nonprofit Efficiency for All, said the program is long overdue. She has been advocating for a more equitable approach in the state’s efficiency programs since 2015.
That was the year she figured out that 30% to 40% of the homes her staff was visiting had barriers that prevented efficiency work from being done. Most were low-income and under-resourced households. Other contractors she talked to were experiencing the same thing, and, she learned, the weatherization programs simply paid them a fee for their time. The homeowners received no additional support.
“I said, that’s crazy — what are we doing to help these people?” she said. “That’s wrong. That’s exclusionary.”
The new program is expected to cover the cost of remediating hazardous conditions for up to 1,000 income-eligible households over the next three years. The program will draw from a utility-maintained list of some 20,000 homes that have been deferred from participation in the state’s energy efficiency programs due to barriers.
After remediation, the households will receive energy efficiency improvements through either the state-managed or utility-managed weatherization programs. Those programs provide home energy audits to customers at little to no cost, while also making improvements like sealing air leaks and installing low-flow showerheads.
The state’s utilities acknowledge that 25% to 30% of low-income customers cannot take advantage of these ratepayer-funded programs because of health and safety barriers in their homes. Those hazards must be cleaned up before contractors can, for example, do a blower-door test to check for air leaks or seal up all the air leaks. But remediation can be very expensive.
Eversource and United Illuminating received a small grant to do some remediation work several years ago. Remediation costs averaged around $6,400 for asbestos, $11,000 for mold, and much more for houses with more than one issue, said Jane Lano, manager of conservation and load management for United Illuminating, in an earlier interview.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection finally began working with the utilities, the state Energy Efficiency Board, and environmental and equity advocates in 2020 on a plan for removing barriers and making more homes eligible. State law requires the department to take steps to achieve weatherization of 80% of residences by 2030.
The new program will be funded with $6.65 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. Another $1.1 million will come from the state’s annual allotment of federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funds.
While that funding has primarily gone toward home energy bill assistance, federal rules do allow for 15% to 25% to be allocated for weatherization, including remediation. The energy department anticipates another $4.4 million in LIHEAP funds will be approved for the remediation program over the next two years, spokesperson Will Healey said.
Colon de Mejias said it makes more sense to use some of those funds to help low-income people use less energy rather than simply continuing to extend energy assistance to those households.
The state is contracting with the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology, or ICAST, to run the program. Based in Colorado, ICAST is a nonprofit agency with considerable experience in providing weatherization services around the country.
The agency specializes in providing these services to multifamily residences, where absentee landlords may be reluctant to get remediation done, said Ravi Malhotra, ICAST’s founder and president.
“We educate landlords,” he said. “It’s a matter of educating and convincing the owner that the value of the property will go up once it is more efficient. And healthier, happier tenants will stay longer.”
Malhotra acknowledged that the list of Connecticut households needing remediation far exceeds the ability of the funding. It will be up to the state energy department to figure out which homes get top priority, he said.
More than 60,000 income-eligible homes in Connecticut are likely in need of remediation, according to information provided by the Energy Futures Group, a consultant for the Energy Efficiency Board. The energy department does not know how much progress has been made toward the 80% weatherization goal, according to Healey. The agency recently released a draft “weatherization standard” to officially define the term. An administrator for the Energy Efficiency Board is now conducting a study to estimate the percentage of single-family homes that meet that standard, he said.