$1 million home weatherization grant pursued

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer December 16, 2009 11:41 am

ENTERPRISE — The Northeast Oregon Economic Development District is applying for more than $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.

The grant would leverage private dollars to improve weatherization in Wallowa County homes. The funds are not income-dependent and can be used for private residences, either owner-occupied or rental units.

The Wallowa County Board of Commissioners gave the district permission to apply for the grant on the condition, if awarded, the grant will not hold the county liable for any financial responsibility. The grant encourages the applicant to have the support of a consortium of local governments, however the funds would go directly to the district to implement the grant. The district is also meeting with the municipalities of the county to ask for their buy in.

District Executive Lisa Dawson said she has spent an exhaustive amount of time trying to find answers to local government financial responsibilities. The county’s concern is that if the entire grant amount is not used, they may be responsible for paying it back. In light that the Energy Efficiency grant is a brand new program, the district and the county have agreed to wait until the grant is awarded to see what fiduciary responsibilities are entailed in the grant agreement.

Dawson said she believes the money will be doled out from DOE as reimbursement and not given out in advance lump sums. Unlike many grants received by local nonprofits, the money would go directly to the district and not be run through the county.

The grant is available for communities under 30,000 and is for homes that use any type of fuel. Seventy-three percent of Wallowa County homes do not have electric heat.

An initial energy efficiency audit would be performed for each home. If a home is awarded grant funds, the homeowner would provide matching funds for the project. Oregon tax credits can count toward the match.

If a homeowner requires a loan for his match, a bank would need to back the loan, yet the loan would be re-paid through the homeowner’s Pacific Power utility bill and Pacific Power will in turn re-pay the bank. Dawson said this has been a successful method in other pilot programs.

“There is a lower level of default when the loan repayment is tied to a utility,” she said.

Sara Miller of the district said that “the theory is that the money homeowners save in energy costs will pay for the improvements.”

The district’s interest in the program, as an economic development organization, is the creation of jobs. Local contractors and contractors willing to relocate to the area would be hired to do the specialized testing and installation necessary. Dawson said the training would be conducted locally to ease costs and difficulty of travel.

The grant application is due Monday. Initial decisions on grant awards are expected by mid-March. The grant time-line is for three years.