The worst recession in 70 years is turning into an energy-saving boon for tiny and remote rural schools in Oregon as well as the state's poorest people.
ROSEBURG — The worst recession in 70 years is turning into an energy-saving boon for tiny and remote rural schools in Oregon as well as the state's poorest people.
Federal economic stimulus money is paying for new energy-efficient lights and windows in schools that have not been modernized since they were built after World War II, and in houses and apartments where people struggle to pay their utility bills.
Nationwide, the Obama administration has dedicated $5 billion to weatherizing low-income housing and $3.1 billion to energy upgrades in public buildings under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Oregon's share is $38 million a year for three years for weatherizing low-income housing and $42 million a year for three years for energy upgrades in schools and other public buildings.
"It'll be a lot warmer in there, and I hope the light bill will go down," Vickey Briggs said as she and her husband, disabled welder Richard Briggs, stood in the cold watching a crew from All Phase Weatherization and Construction install insulation underneath their doublewide in Roseburg.
Stimulus-funded energy projects have been slower to be realized than, say, highway paving projects, but that is because the paving projects were already planned, while many of the energy programs had to be designed from scratch, said Brian Shipley, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
About 4,400 houses and apartments occupied by poor people will ultimately be fixed up, at a typical cost of $3,200, translating into 628 jobs under spending formulas, said Peggy McGuire, who runs the community resources division of the Oregon Department of Housing.
"What we have found is about 25 percent of the most vulnerable Oregonians are spending more than half their income for utilities," McGuire said. "That means people can't buy medicine, pay rent, buy groceries."
About 200 schools and other public buildings will benefit from stimulus projects, said Oregon Department of Energy spokeswoman Ann Grim. That works out to 87 jobs created, and 306 jobs retained, under spending formulas.
Though major grants have been awarded, such as $1 million for geothermal energy development at Lakeview schools, many of the first projects coming to fruition have been at small rural schools.
Long Creek School District in the Blue Mountains south of Pendleton is typical. Founded in the 1890s, its best days were in the post-World War II timber boom. The last lumber mill in town shut down about 8 years ago.
The school now has about 75 students, so small they have to team up with two other schools to field one eight-man football team. Even with just six teachers and a few other staff, the school is the biggest employer in the town of 200 people.
Most residents commute 40 miles to John Day, where a mill still survives. Some kids ride buses 30 miles to school each morning, and 30 miles home each afternoon.
With a federal stimulus grant of just $18,673, Long Creek leveraged about $50,000 to install energy-efficient fluorescent lights controlled by occupancy sensors. Their local utility gave a matching grant, and they sold off $20,000 worth of business energy tax credits for $12,000.
The lights are saving them about $7,500 on a power bill that typically runs $45,000 a year, said Roy Durfee, who doubles as principal and superintendent — savings that are helping them keep one of their six teachers.
"We would have had to delve into some pretty tough reserves to keep that teaching position going another year," said Durfee. "This way we're able to do that without any real challenge."
Lighting contractor Keith Williams drove over from the Willamette Valley town of Creswell to do the job, hiring a couple local electricians from the surrounding area. This is his first stimulus-funded job, and he hopes to land two more at small schools in Eastern Oregon. It is not a big part of his business, but he sees it as making a big difference for small rural schools.
"Everybody is looking at stimulus (to see) where that job is being created now," he said. "You've created three jobs to get a project on a short-term basis. But on a long-term basis you saved a job. That's a different way of looking at it."
The jobs are much longer term for the weatherization crew working on the Briggs house in Roseburg.
The collapse of the construction industry cost Phil Seal, 24, his job in a cabinet shop, but he was trained for the weatherization job by United Community Action Network in Roseburg, and is looking forward to steady employment at $16.32 an hour, more than he was making before.
"It's a long ways from cabinetry, but I'm actually liking this — helping people," he said before crawling back under the doublewide.