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Helping N.Y. homes become more energy efficient

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Buffalo Niagara region isn’t a bad place to be in the home weatherization business.

Between the aging housing stock and cold winters, there are plenty of homes that are drafty, poorly insulated and have inefficient heating systems.

B. Carl Panzarella and Brian Paterson saw that eight years ago, when they launched New Buffalo Impact, a City of Tonawanda nonprofit that conducts energy audits to identify potential energy savings as well as the weatherization work that stems from that study.

It also has a training center in the back of its Peuquet Parkway office where it runs a program in conjunction with Erie Community College and Erie 1 BOCES to teach weatherization skills to students in construction training programs.

New Buffalo Impact has grown to 40 employees, who do energy audits and weatherization work throughout the region, but especially in lower-income neighborhoods for residents who take advantage of government-backed energy-efficiency programs.

It all led to New Buffalo Impact being named earlier this month the “Contractor of the Year” for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s EmPower New York plan to help low-income households reduce their use of electricity and make their heating systems more efficient.”

“Our focus is targeted toward the people with the highest energy burdens,” Paterson said.

That tends to be lower-income residents, who often live in drafty homes or apartments with little, or sometimes no, insulation. For those residents, who already are struggling to make ends meet, high heating bills are an especially heavy burden on their family budgets.

Working through the federal stimulus program, or other initiatives offered through NYSERDA, New Buffalo Impact workers conduct energy audits to identify a home’s efficiency issues and then runs them through a computer model to determine which improvements would have the biggest impact, Paterson said.

Often, the most effective improvements are among the least expensive, including adding insulation and sealing drafts that allow heat to escape, Paterson said. More costly improvements, such as new windows, often have a long pay back time.

The last two years have been especially busy for New Buffalo Impact, which has benefited from federal stimulus funding for weatherization programs. Those funds allowed New Buffalo Impact to work on 10 different projects that resulted in 827 apartment units in the region receiving sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades, from insulation and air-sealing improvements to new furnaces and water heaters.

But that is changing. The federal stimulus funding is running out this month, and it hasn’t been extended, which Paterson said could lead to job cuts of 25 percent to 40 percent of New Buffalo Impact’s work force come January.

“These jobs are definitely in jeopardy,” he said. “Probably half of our capacity will be sitting idle because of this.”

In its place, New Buffalo Impact is relying on programs funded through NYSERDA, including its EmPower New York and Green Jobs, Green Homes programs, which offers energy audits and reduced-cost financing for home energy-efficiency improvements.

“The NYSERDA funded things are ramping up as the stimulus-funded projects are ramping down,” Paterson said.

But the sputtering economy also is making for some tough sledding in the energy-efficiency market.

With the end of the federal stimulus funding, which pumped $5 billion into low-income weatherization programs across the country, government money is now much tighter.

“Weatherization programs are a low priority right now,” Paterson said.

And individuals, grappling with high unemployment, stagnant wages, tight credit and overall uncertainty about whether the economy will keep growing or fall back into recession, are reluctant to take on added expenses and debt for weatherization improvements.

“It’s difficult to convince people to buy because they don’t have the up-front capital and they’re afraid to borrow, too,” Paterson said. “What I’ve noticed since the economic downturn is that people only want to do the bare minimum.”

Paterson worried that low-income households, who already devote a higher portion of their monthly budgets to their heat bills, will be hurt the most, since their homes tend to be especially energy inefficient.

“It’s kind of a vicious cycle. The people who need it the most, can’t get it,” he said.

David Robinson