Do We Give People Energy or Help Them to Save It?

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was budgeted $2.5-billion by Congress in 2013. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was allowed $68-million. Does anyone see a contradiction here?

LIHEAP provides, primarily, emergency help for households who can’t afford to heat their homes in the winter or cool their homes in the summer. It saves the health and sometimes the lives of vulnerable people. It’s a great program. But it is designed to provide help during emergencies. It’s a bandage that stops the immediate suffering that vulnerable families often face in weather extremes. But wouldn’t it be better to greatly decrease the chances of that emergency occurring in the first place? That’s what WAP does. The program, along with occupant behavior changes, can create homes that are more energy efficient, safe, healthy, and affordable to live in for low-income families. It can reduce or remove the need for emergency assistance. It can even free up some funds to help cover other expenses such as food and health care. And we pay for it once every few decades. And it creates more jobs than writing checks to a utility.

I think LIHEAP and WAP are great programs. I know they work together in many instances and some LIHEAP funds do go for simple retrofit measures that save energy in the homes of low-income families. But why is there such an imbalance in funding between the two programs? Why does LIHEAP receive almost 37 times as much funding as WAP?

Could it be that Congress likes to help in an emergency and do something concrete that they can point to when up for re-election through LIHEAP, but aren’t interested in supporting something that is hard to see—energy efficiency and occupant health through WAP? Do utilities that have no incentive to help save energy pressure Congress to support LIHEAP because, for them, it is money in the bank that the utilities would otherwise not get? I don’t know. I’m just speculating here.

What do you think? If you agree that the lopsided spending on LIHEAP compared to WAP is a problem, how might we at least begin to fix it?

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Comment by William H Nickerson on October 1, 2013 at 7:09am

First thing you can do is send everybody -I mean everybody remotely involved in these programs to a building science class. This way they at least can at least understand academically what the heck their talking about.  Especially office managers. 

Comment by Dennis Heidner on September 30, 2013 at 4:54pm

Setting the heat limit to 70F impacts seniors.  And they may also be one of the groups that benefits from LHEAP.

 As we humans age, our thermal comfort zone changes.   If you have ever been in nursing homes or retirement centers with large populations of the over 80's  one of the most obvious indoor environmental change is the higher temperature setting.  The same is true for hospitals... the settings are higher for a reason.

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on September 27, 2013 at 2:32pm

Thanks Bob and Tom for emphasizing the connections between LIHEAP and WAP and the importance of both programs. I think you answered my question, Bob. To solve the problem, I think we need to work to strengthen support for WAP and continue supporting LIHEAP. What a great team.

Comment by Bob Scott on September 27, 2013 at 9:50am

As pointed out by Tom Conlon, energy efficiency advocates should not be viewing this in terms of WAP vs. LIHEAP. Legislatively, they are in different departments / different spending bills and, in that sense, not competing with each other. Programatically, they are two sides of the same coin - LIHEAP providing immediate assistance and WAP being a longer term solution. 

Federal rules allow up to 15% of LIHEAP funds to be used for weatherization, and over 40 states utilize LIHEAP funds in their Weatherization Programs. Nationally, LIHEAP Weatherization funds are 2-3 times that of DOE funding. 

NASCSP strongly supports both programs, and believes the real solution is to fund DOE WAP at substantial levels to enable a robust national program making a real difference in the energy efficiency of the housing stock in communities throughout the country. That would help reduce the need for low-income fuel assistance.


Comment by Tom Conlon on September 26, 2013 at 3:58pm

Thanks Jim,

it's good to begin framing this important question. Certainly no one should misinterpret this as a suggestion that efficiency advocates are trying to mount a raid of LIHEAP funds. As you point out, LIHEAP provides tangible benefits to many at a time of need and should remain a valuable tool in both the utility's and the social worker's tool box for years to come. The question is how can we help make both programs work better, to deliver more value to more people at the same cost (or if we can improve its cost effectiveness significantly, eventually even lower cost)? 

This is a good time to raise it. The utilities themselves are now advocating for a systems rethinking of what roles and responsibilities the grid should play. I agree, it's appropriate that improved LIHEAP/WAP coordination should be part of that discussion.

I know both LIHEAP and WAP are subject to periodic evaluation reports. It is time for DOE to sponsor a metastudy of these past reports to identify any obvious opportunities for coordination between the two programs.

If the most recent LIHEAP studies don't already address the following research questions, the next one should:

Is LIHEAP currently reaching those Americans most in need of its emergency assistance?

 - Ratepayers most at risk for suffering negative health impacts of energy shutoff?

 - Ratepayers inhabiting building units most at risk for reaching unsafe temperatures?

Are LIHEAP funds geographically distributed in proportion to where they are collected?

 - What is the LIHEAP collections/distributions (C/D) ratio for each state and MSA?

 - What is the LIHEAP C/D ratio for each fuel type?

 - What is the LIHEAP C/D ratio for each utility service area?

 - If there are any C/D outlier cases, is there a legitimate public policy rationale to justify them?

Are certain building units 'frequent flyers' in the LIHEAP program?

 - What percentage of these have participated in WAP in the last two years?

Similar questions should be asked of the WAP program.

With such data in front of us, it would be much easier to join with utilities, social justice advocates, politicians, and others to build support for at least more targeted coordination, or even a future merger, between LIHEAP and WAP.

Comment by Bob Blanchette on September 23, 2013 at 8:38pm

Agreed, LIHEAP does nothing to reduce use. Allowing people to not change lifestyle because the taxpayers are paying their utility bills is ridiculous. Set heat limit @ 70/cool @ 75 if you agree to take taxpayer money..

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