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The Trump budget’s bizarre move to cut the weatherization of homes

Edwin Aguilar replaces siding during weatherization work on a home in Grafton, Neb., on Aug. 4, 2009. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Among dozens of federal programs proposed for elimination in the Trump administration’s newly revealed budget proposal is the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, or WAP, a grant program housed under the Department of Energy that helps states improve the energy efficiency of the homes of low-income families. It’s one of several climate and energy-related initiatives that, if erased, could actually hurt consumers in ways that seem inconsistent with the economy-boosting action the administration claims to seek.

Two weeks ago, we described the administration’s proposal to eliminate the federal Energy Star program as part of a sweeping series of cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency — a move that energy efficiency experts argued could financially hurt consumers and businesses. Cutting the WAP, experts say, could have a similar effect. Like Energy Star, WAP benefits the environment by reducing energy consumption and thereby cutting down on harmful greenhouse gas emissions — but its most fundamental purpose is to save consumers money on their energy bills.

“Homeowners that are lucky enough to benefit from this program can save up to $450 a year on their energy bills,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, adding that while this may not sound like a lot to some, for low-income families it can be “very significant.”

WAP was first established in 1976 and has been used to aid more than 7 million families since. The “weatherization” process generally involves making basic improvements to homes that cut down on their energy use — for instance, sealing up holes in walls and windows, adding insulation or replacing heating and cooling equipment.

A review of the program, conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2010, found that it weatherized 340,000 homes in that year alone, translating into $1.1 billion in household savings and 7.3 million metric tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions. That year’s work also supported 28,000 jobs, the report noted.

“In the end, it’s an energy efficiency program and it’s a health program and it’s a jobs program and an economic development program and an environmental program,” said Lowell Ungar, senior policy adviser with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

That said, the program hasn’t been without criticism. A 2015 paper that focused on the WAP in Michigan suggested that the costs associated with performing weatherization outweighed the energy savings, but that did not reflect the program’s performance nationwide. Additionally, because the weatherization costs are shouldered by the government, the families they target benefit financially no matter what.

Meredith Fowlie of the University of California at Berkeley, lead author of that paper, told The Washington Post in an emailed comment that cutting the WAP would eliminate its costs, but also “future energy savings that would have accrued to future low-income participants.”

“Notably, under this preliminary budget, my understanding is that WAP would not be replaced by more cost-effective approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she added. “And such approaches are out there.” On the contrary, the proposed budget seeks to downsize or eliminate a multitude of climate and clean energy programs — everything from regulations like the Clean Power Plan to research programs on renewable energy.

The WAP also isn’t the only program up for elimination that helps families save on their energy bills. Also included on the hit list is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, this program directly assists consumers with the costs of their energy bills, or sometimes with the costs of weatherizing their homes.

Removing programs that save consumers money and thereby benefit the economy seems inconsistent with the Trump administration’s professed economic priorities, even if they do fall in line with the administration’s plans to eliminate spending on climate programs. However, the budget proposal indicates that numerous other such programs that provide assistance to vulnerable communities are also up for cuts, many of which have no environmental or climate goals associated with them.

Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy said she feels that the current proposal reflects a poor understanding of the benefits associated with programs like WAP. But, given that it’s only a proposal for now, she added that her hope is that its next iteration “won’t be so draconian.”