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Draft bill would boost state weatherization program beset by backlog

An adage about Minnesota is that the weather’s not bad, if you’re dressed for it.

The same could be said about residences. Extra attention is required in a state where the winters can be bitter, the summers hot and humid. And if shortcomings in insulation and efficient heating and ventilation aren’t addressed, energy bills can be way higher than they need be.

That’s where the weatherization process comes in, which is designed to make investments that will save money once implemented.

But Minnesota has a problem.

The state’s Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income residents has such a backlog that it’s estimated it would take 291 years to address the needs of each currently eligible household.

A Commerce Department working group was assembled to develop ideas that might help cut into that backlog, and its findings were presented to the House Climate and Energy Policy and Finance Committee on a chilly Thursday. Then, Rep. Robert Bierman (DFL-Apple Valley) discussed a bill draft that would implement many of the report’s recommendations.

“Last year, Minnesota served about 1,900 homes under this program,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls). “Meanwhile, our neighbor Wisconsin did about 6,000.” Long later added that Massachusetts served about 19,000 households under its program.

So what could help the state’s program catch up? Several testifiers said it needs stable, flexible funding, a larger workforce, and a way to serve the state’s households without getting bogged down in federal restrictions.

Bierman’s plan would put state money forward to allow grants for pre-weatherization, make the weatherization of multifamily homes easier, and foster workforce development in the fields of pre-weatherization and weatherization services.

“It will create local jobs and economic activity in all of our communities,” Bierman said. “It will lower bills, reduce stress on the power grid, increase equity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By all measures, we lag behind neighboring states in helping low-income households with this. The bill before you seeks to remedy this condition.”

“This would address our two biggest challenges,” said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Wadena-based Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership. “The first is deferrals because of some defect in a home that federal funding doesn’t have the flexibility to fix. So projects can last years. The second is a shortage of contractors.”

Chris Conry, campaign director of the 100% Campaign, wrote to the committee: “According to the December 2021 estimate of the Office of Senate Counsel, Research, and Fiscal Analysis, Minnesota can expect to receive $144.8 million in new funds for the Weatherization Assistance Program. With the additional support being proposed in this bill, our state would be well-positioned for a breakthrough on home weatherization.”

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